Do Controversial People, Acts and Money Rub Off?

The political mud season is underway
The political mud season is underway

Is controversy contagious? Some in politics sure hope so. The mud-throwing season is under way, with candidates on both sides working overtime to sully their opponents, often through a kind of taint-by-association.

Democrats are pushing anchor-baby videos of state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, as reasons voters should shun the elephants. Republicans, meanwhile, want their Democratic foes standing closer to President Barack Obama, especially since his remarks about building a mosque near the site where the World Trade Center towers fell on 9/11. They're hoping his low approval ratings will rub off.

"Both sides have folks who do what they do," says a rueful Texas Republican who doesn't want his name next to those of his party's outspoken officeholders.

The issue isn't only ties to toxic people. Partisans accuse candidates of taking dirty money, too. Democratic U.S. Reps. Charlie Rangel, of New York, and Maxine Waters, of California, are fighting ethics charges. Both have given campaign contributions to Democrats — and Republicans want you to know all about it. Democrats, for their part, want you to see who got money from billionaire donors Sam and Charles Wyly of Dallas, who have been accused of securities fraud. All of those people — Rangel, Waters and the Wylys — are fighting the charges, but they'll continue to serve as cannon fodder for the campaigns as they await resolution. 

It's not at all clear that such tactics are successful. But campaigns, looking for any small advantage, employ them all the time. "There's no way to know if anything sticks until you throw it out there," says Harold Cook, a Democratic consultant. He and others say the trick only works if voters feel strongly about the bad actors.

U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, took $42,000 from Rangel and another $5,400 from Waters. His Republican challenger, Bill Flores, and the National Republican Congressional Committee have been beating their drums to get the word out. U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, got $21,000 from Rangel and $2,500 from Waters. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, his Republican challenger, wants Rodriguez to give back or donate the money, or, he says, Rodriguez will be “imposing Charlie Rangel’s Harlem values right here in Texas.” To date, the NRCC has sent at least 10 rounds of press releases trying to link 46 Democratic members of Congress to Rangel, Waters and their ethics problems.

When the Wyly brothers were accused of a $550 million securities fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Texas Republicans who had accepted their money were suddenly faced with the same decisions they tried to force on their opponents. Gov. Rick Perry has received $390,000 in Wyly money. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst got about $308,000. Attorney General Greg Abbott has collected $85,000. The Texas GOP took $100,000. The NRCC, which so adamantly demanded that the Democrats “clean their coffers,” got $124,000. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, of Dallas, the chair of the NRCC, received $29,000.

So now it's the Democrats' turn to tell the Republicans to write refund checks. Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie says that if Perry doesn't return the Wylys' money, “it’s more proof that he’s a corrupt career politician who’s only in it for himself.” Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Perry campaign, says the governor hasn’t received money from the Wylys during this election cycle and, in fact, hasn’t gotten any campaign contributions from the brothers since 2005.

Too little, too late?

For all the noise between the partisans about who got money from an allegedly corrupt donor, the attacks probably don't add up to much at the ballot box.

"I never think it really works unless it's persistent," says Republican consultant Wayne Hamilton.

Gubernatorial candidate Bill White ducking Obama during the president's visit to Texas last week is an example. It was in the news for days, and Perry has the ability to put a million-dollar advertising campaign behind it if he decides that's what moves voters. But without promotion from his camp, the episode probably won't stick with voters.

Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas who polls for The Texas Tribune, says there isn't enough data to quantify just how much voters actually care about accusations of connections to dirty money. “You see [these allegations] in almost every competitive house race in Texas," Shaw says. "One of the first things your opponent will do is look up who has contributed to you. … Anything that comes up is a potential arrow in the quiver of your opponent.”

Shaw and some other consultants think it might not matter that a politician got money from a tarnished donor. Then again, in cases where damage occurs, it might help the tarnished politician to give the money back.

“The gesture of returning the tainted money may be too little, too late for many voters,” says Craig McDonald, director of the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

While voters may be too cynical to be affected much by accusations of dirty connections, McDonald says, they usually make a distinction between those connected to an indicted donor and those connected to an allegedly corrupt politician. “When a tainted donor gives money to a politician, it almost gives a stamp of approval that the politician thought it was a legitimate donor,” McDonald says.

During Enron's spectacular financial collapse 10 years ago and the subsequent investigations into corruption in its corporate suites, Republicans who'd received money from the company's PAC were quick to return it, to give it to charity, to wash their hands. But an attempt to march that particular parade of problems to the GOP's Texas headquarters didn't work. A website called EnronOwnsTheGOP.com popped up, and the state party responded not by refunding money to the PAC but by filing ethics complaints against the late Democratic consultant Kelly Fero, who created the site. "One of them stuck," Hamilton remembers. "But that was purely accidental."

Enron's troubles dragged on and on. Yet while it's easy to see what worked in the past, it's hard to know how something will play out in today's vastly different media and communications universe.

"The issues that work are those that make people so extremely mad or that deal with their everyday lives," says Democratic consultant Jeff Crosby. Take Riddle's riff on anchor babies on CNN. So far, all she's done is talk. "She's embarrassing," Crosby says. "But frankly, from the Democratic side, I don't see it affecting anybody's daily life."

Riddle's not in trouble in her own race and, so far, doesn't appear to be a threat to other Republicans. That could change, Crosby says, "if there's a pattern of craziness" that opponents can capitalize on.

Richie, the Democratic party chairman, admits that Riddle and Gohmert merely sound nutty. "Anyone who has that little sense needs treatment. … They ought to back off the Kool-Aid a little bit," he says. But he hopes voters will tie their views to the GOP itself, and to its candidates. "Texas Republicans were getting out of the mainstream long before Riddle and Gohmert started talking," he says.

It takes a long time or big bucks to build negative associations — or both. Conservatives spent years tearing into trial lawyers, poisoning a well of campaign money that Democrats had relied upon for ages and setting the stage for changes in tort laws starting in the mid-1990s. It's still common to hear "personal injury trial lawyer" flung around as a pejorative in campaigns. Sometimes, a particular donor or individual becomes a problem. The five lawyers who sued the big tobacco companies on behalf of the state were vilified by Republicans, and their contributions to (mostly) Democratic candidates were regularly attacked, too. "Demonizing the trial lawyers, to a degree, worked, but it took a whole lot of work," Hamilton says. "It's tough. You have to have a whole lot of money and effort behind it."

Jim Leininger, a San Antonio doctor who's long been an advocate of school vouchers and a huge financier of Texas Republicans, gradually became an issue himself. His support of a campaign became part of Democratic attacks, particularly in districts where vouchers were unpopular.

"In some cases the money makes a difference, and sometimes it's a personality," Richie says. "Look at Tom DeLay." The former U.S. House majority leader's fall from political grace came fast and on two fronts, with his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff undermining his fortunes in Washington, D.C., while criminal investigations of his role in the 2002 elections in Texas undercut him here. While the Justice Department dropped its investigation of DeLay this week after six years, the next hearings in the Texas case are set for next week. DeLay, in the association game, remains politically contagious.

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