In California, a member of Congress was indicted this year on charges that he used a quarter-million dollars in campaign donations to purchase family vacations and an airplane ticket for his pet rabbit, among other things. In New York, another member of the House was arrested on insider-trading charges. In New Jersey, a senator whose corruption trial ended with a deadlocked jury was rebuked by his peers for violating standards of conduct.
All these things happened this year to incumbents who will be on the ballot come November. They are also all currently favorites to win re-election, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts. And they aren’t alone. But while it may feel like we’re becoming immune to scandal, incumbency and partisanship have long held sway in the U.S., even in the face of bad headlines.
Several candidates seem to be banking on it. The investigation into the campaign finances of Republican California Rep. Duncan Hunter predates this year’s primaries, but he declined to bow out despite knowing that the charges could come out before Election Day (which they did). After New York Rep. Chris Collins, also a Republican, was arrested, the GOP tried to get him off the ballot. When it realized that would be all but impossible, he simply returned to campaigning. And despite heavy criticism, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez has forged ahead with his re-election bid in New Jersey. All three have denied the charges against them.
Scandals in Washington are nothing new, and they definitely hurt an incumbent candidate’s chances of winning re-election (which is why they are a line item in the FiveThirtyEight midterm forecasts). FiveThirtyEight and other analysts have found that in recent decades, scandals have taken a toll on candidates’ support, to the tune of 6 to 9 percentage points.
And that’s just among incumbents who decide to stay in the game. FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich maintains a database of statewide and federal elected officials accused of scandals, which he defines as a credible accusation of objective criminal or ethical wrongdoing, such as embezzlement or adultery. (Mere controversies, such as when a candidate makes an offensive comment, don’t count.) In that data set, 48 percent of the U.S. representatives and senators who were involved in a scandal from 2008 to 2016 resigned or retired after allegations emerged, without running for re-election. Among those who stayed the course and ran (for any office, not just the one they previously held), just shy of 50 percent won.
This election season, 10 incumbents are running for the House or Senate with clouds hanging over their heads, according to FiveThirtyEight’s database of scandal.
Scandal-plagued candidates are mostly favored
Incumbent House and Senate candidates who have been involved in a scandal in the current election cycle, by district partisan lean and 2018 FiveThirtyEight midterm forecast category as of Oct. 1
|Incumbent||Scandal type||name||Partisan Lean||2018 forecast|
|Rod Blum (R)||Ethics||IA-1||D+0.7||Solid D|
|Dana Rohrabacher (R)||Election collusion||CA-48||R+6.7||Lean D|
|Scott Taylor (R)||Election fraud||VA-2||R+7.8||Likely R|
|Bob Menendez (D)||Corruption||NJ (Sen.)||D+13.3||Likely D|
|David Schweikert (R)||Campaign finance||AZ-6||R+17.6||Likely R|
|Duncan Hunter (R)||Campaign finance||CA-50||R+21.6||Likely R|
|Chris Collins (R)||Corruption||NY-27||R+22.9||Likely R|
|Bobby Scott (D)||Sex||VA-3||D+28.5||Uncontested|
|Jim Jordan (R)||Sexual harassment coverup||OH-4||R+30.0||Solid R|
|Tony Cárdenas (D)||Sex||CA-29||D+55.5||Solid D|
But whether or not voters are more tolerant of shenanigans, many of these candidates are headed into election season with a sizable political advantage, one that most likely would be difficult for challengers to overcome by scandal alone.
Much of that is due to the incumbency advantage, which has been a master salve that can see politicians through all sorts of political ailments (though it’s increasingly less effective). In the U.S., we give a lot of priority to people who are already politicians. Combine that advantage with an electorate that doesn’t follow politics closely, and scandals aren’t always a cause for concern among voters, according to research by Marko Klašnja, a professor at Georgetown University.
That could be a boon to Hunter, who hails from a rural and suburban electorate in eastern San Diego and parts of Riverside counties that’s not particularly engaged when it comes to politics, according to a variety of Republican and Democratic leaders who work in the area.
That means that even though the Hunter indictment is nearly 50 pages long and full of details about the allegations against him, it’s likely that many in the area have not heard of the charges against him. But they might be familiar with his name: Before Duncan Duane Hunter, there was Duncan Lee Hunter, his father, who represented the area for many years. “Older people sometimes think they are voting for his dad,” said Shawn VanDiver, an active Democrat in the area. Collectively, the two Hunters have represented the area for nearly four decades. Hunter also made a name for himself by being a strong, and early, supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential bid (as did Collins).
Hunter’s district is among the most reliably Republican districts in California. Several other candidates who are seeking office despite scandals plaguing their campaigns are in comfortable districts as well. Collins’s congressional district — New York’s 27th — is nearly 23 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric.1 And in Menendez’s home state of New Jersey, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 900,000. Not only are these areas decidedly shaded in red or blue, partisanship is generally on the rise. Even if our tolerance for scandal has stayed the same, it is possible that a more partisan electorate might be more welcoming to a politician under the magnifying glass.
While still plenty conservative at an R+18 partisan lean, Arizona’s 6th Congressional District is not quite as politically lopsided as other areas with scandal-plagued contests this year. Rep. David Schweikert is under investigation after being accused of campaign finance violations (he has said that the irregularities are the result of a clerical error), but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not stepped in with its full force to support his opponent, Anita Malik, even though some prognosticators think the race could be competitive.
It probably helps Schweikert (Collins and Hunter, too) that they are accused of financial crimes. While the FiveThirtyEight model doesn’t distinguish between types of scandals, there’s some evidence that what an incumbent is accused of might matter. Morality-related scandals, including sexual indiscretions, (usually) seem to hurt incumbents slightly more than financial scandals (though not always), according to a 2011 study by Nicholas Chad Long,2 a professor at St. Edward’s University. That may be because financial crimes are more difficult to understand, and complexity matters when determining whether or not voters punish politicians, according to Klašnja.
But even though incumbents enjoy these big advantages, a win isn’t a foregone conclusion. In Hunter’s case, his opponent in the general election, Ammar Campa-Najjar, wasn’t expected to have much of a chance until the indictment was announced, even though he beat out five other Democrats and Republicans in California’s top-two primary. Campa-Najjar was born and largely raised in the district, and he worked for the U.S. Labor Department and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce before launching his own business. He’s the toughest opponent the younger Hunter has faced, VanDiver said.
And the Hunter campaign seems to feel threatened. It has made false statements about Campa-Najjar’s religion (he is Christian) and upbringing. Most recently, it has been conflating Campa-Najjar’s Palestinian heritage and the growth of the Muslim population in the U.S. Hunter has described his opponent as trying to “infiltrate Congress.” It’s not clear how well that tactic will sit with the district’s immigrant population, which includes a concentration of Iraqi Chaldeans, a Christian sect associated with the Catholic Church. They have expressed mixed reactions to President Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.
Tony Krvaric, chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego County, is banking on the fact that voters will stick to their partisan ideologies and trust in the justice system to take care of Hunter on its own. He said that he’s been spending time reminding voters of three things: First, the names on the ballot aren’t changing — Hunter is who the GOP has on offer. Second, if the House were to move to impeach Trump, Campa-Najjar would only hurt the president. And, third, the authorities will handle the charges against Hunter.
Krvaric, who is an immigrant from Sweden and says he fell in love with Ronald Reagan’s politics as a teenager, thinks the bad air around Hunter has largely cleared. He said he’ll also be reminding San Diegans that the most important thing is to get a Republican in office.
As the old saying goes, he may be a scoundrel, but at least he’s their scoundrel.