In a year when they otherwise would cruise to easy victories, two incumbents find their normally safe seats in play in the most alarming of ways.
They’re both under indictment.
What would normally be a re-election cakewalk for U.S. Reps. Chris Collins from western New York state or Duncan Hunter from San Diego has turned into a struggle.
Collins is accused of insider trading. Party leaders asked him to withdraw, but he decided to stay in the race.
Hunter faces 60 counts involving personal use of more than $250,000 in campaign funds – he blamed his wife for the fraud.
Both Collins and Hunter have pleaded not guilty, but the legal thunderclouds are leading to more political storms than would be expected for the two established Republicans.
The most heat so far has come in Hunter’s race, in which his campaign released a letter to voters from three retired Marine Corps generals labeling his Democratic rival, Ammar Campa-Najjar, as a “national security risk” if elected to Congress because his grandfather was a Palestinian terrorist.
Campa-Najjar’s campaign fired back, saying the candidate passed an FBI background check to receive a security clearance before serving in the Labor Department under the Obama administration. It also has blasted Hunter over his indictment and branded him a racist.
In Collins’ race, Democratic challenger Nate McMurray has launched a “Clean Up Corruption” plan that underscores his rival’s legal problems.
“We know the consequences of a man like Mr. Collins all too well in this region: Their greed robs us as taxpayers and their betrayal undermines our faith in democracy. It is the antithesis of public service,” he said in announcing it.
As it turns out, though, being indicted is hardly a political death sentence when it comes to standing for re-election. Both Collins and Hunter have seen polls in their races narrow, but they remain ahead.
A Monmouth University poll last month had Hunter up 15 percentage points over Campa-Najjar. A Berkeley IGS poll showed him up by 2 points. In the Collins race, the congressman led McMurray in a Spectrum News/Siena College poll by 3 percentage points.
The indictment certainly appears to have changed the dynamics of the Collins race. “About a quarter of Republicans say they are voting for McMurray,” said Siena pollster Steven Greenberg in an interview after his latest results were released this month. Collins “has to find a way to bring those Republicans back home.”
In deciding to run for re-election, Collins and Hunter join an exclusive bipartisan group to which no one wants to belong – the congressman-under-indictment club. Members have seen mixed results over the years when it came to getting re-elected. Rep. Floyd Flake, a New York Democrat accused of tax evasion, embezzlement and conspiracy in 1990, won another term despite the charges, which were later dropped. But Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat indicated on bribery and fraud in 2007, lost in the general election.
Why stop at indictment? Rep. Jim Traficant ran a re-election campaign from prison in 2002, where he had been sent for taking bribes. Traficant, a populist Ohio Democrat known for inserting the Star Trek phrase “beam me up” in his floor speeches, collected 20,000 votes running as an independent from his cell. He lost.
Cases such as these pit voters’ party and ideological loyalty against their hesitations about candidates who may be convicted of serious crimes.
“In this current climate, it takes a lot for a voter to vote against their political interest because of disgust of the personal behavior of their senator or congressman,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
But the stain of an indictment, even if the politician beats the rap, can hang over subsequent elections.
Consider Sen. Bob Menendez’ race in New Jersey, which has been proving closer than expected. Federal prosecutors decided not to retry the Democrat after a jury deadlocked last year in his trial on bribery and other charges. But his Republican rival, Bob Hugin, isn’t holding back when it comes to the hangover from Menendez’ corruption case.
“This race is tight because people are outraged when they learn the full truth about who Bob Menendez really is and his disgraceful actions,” said Hugin spokeswoman Megan Piwowar.
Weingart said politicians have to navigate carefully around their indictments.
“The strategy should be to say how you feel about the charges,” he said. “You don’t want that to be the dominant topic of the campaign.”
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