When a report surfaced on Monday night that Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s Attorney General and the Democrats’ presumed nominee for the U.S. Senate race there, may have misled the public about his service in Vietnam, I (like many others) had a very unsympathetic reaction.* But there are two events that have come to light since Monday that create some additional ambiguity around Blumenthal’s statements and probably lessen their political impact.
The first is the circulation of a longer-form version of the recording that the accompanied the New York Times’ story. In the video, several minutes before referring to his service “in Vietnam”, Blumenthal refers to his service “during the Vietnam Era”. That would arguably support Blumenthal’s assertion that he merely “misspoke”, rather than deliberately exaggerated his record. (The long-form video, by the way, wasn’t really “discovered” by anyone; it was hiding in plain sight on the website of GOP candidate Linda McMahon, where it had been since at least Monday.)
The second was the inexplicable decision by the McMahon campaign to brag about the story, saying that their multi-million dollar opposition research project had uncovered it, and that they’d tipped off the Times. I am not a media critic, and so am not going to comment on the journalistic ethics of this, other than to say that it would be anything but unusual for a newspaper to investigate a tip provided to them by a interested party, and the question ought not to be where the tip came from, but what the newspaper did with it. Rather, the implications are more political: they tend to frame the story more in terms of the usual banalities of negative campaigning, and less in terms of the underlying veracity of the accusation itself.
By no means is Blumenthal off the hook. The Times uncovered at least three additional examples (some first-hand and others second-hand) in which he appeared to have exaggerated his service record, and we can expect that there will be a “race” among local and national media to search for others. It’s also clear (as the original Times story reported) that Blumenthal has spoken more properly about his service record on several other occasions; in general, his misrepresentations seem to come when he’s speaking to veterans’ groups, and his more qualified statements when speaking to broader audiences.
Nevertheless, the optics of the situation have improved for Blumenthal to the point that it’s unclear whether he’ll sacrifice the entirety of the 20-something point lead that he enjoyed previously. A Rasmussen poll today showed Blumenthal losing about 10 points against each of his GOP rivals, but Rasmussen (as has been typical for them this cycle) had the race significantly closer to begin with than have other pollsters. The poll also showed a significant rise in the number of voters who had a negative opinion of Linda McMahon. Although Rasmussen has shown McMahon closer to Blumenthal than rival GOPer (and Vietnam veteran) Rob Simmons, other polls have shown the opposite, and McMahon has both significantly less experience and significantly more baggage than he does.
For the time being, I would probably describe the race as somewhere between lean and likely Democrat, shading toward the former if Simmons is the nominee, and the latter if it’s McMahon. But we’re simply going to have to wait for more polling. Connecticut’s nominating convention is on Friday, indeed, and the DSCC would be committing malpractice not to have polling out in the field themselves. As I described on Monday, it may be that Blumenthal is still a favorite in this race, but that any of several other prospective nominees would be safer.
* By no means do I claim to write without a personal viewpoint and this story, for reasons that aren’t worth getting into, really struck my funny bone. But I’m gradually coming around more and more to the view that FiveThirtyEight, even as a “blog”, ought to err on the side adopting a more strictly journalistic tone. The first couple of paragraphs of Monday’s piece slanted more than they needed to toward opinion, especially for a story that was still developing.