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Opinion

Scandal or not, the money flows

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LANSING — What do campaign contributors do when their favorite members of Congress become enmeshed in scandal?

Open their wallets wider and pour more money into protecting their investment in the tainted incumbents.

That’s the major finding of a new study examining the fate of more than 100 members of the U.S. House of Representatives – including two from Michigan – who ran for reelection between 1980 and 2010 after a sex, financial, political or other scandal broke. In general, their voter support dropped but their campaign contributions grew.

“Indeed, the scandal revelation might send a signal that help is needed. Donors may, therefore, wish to contribute more to a scandal-tainted member out of the desire to protect a known quantity,” the study said.

Lead author Brian Hamel, a political science Ph.D. student at the University of California Los Angeles, said, “What is driving these effects are not personal attitudes but partisanship.”

With party control switching between Democrats and Republicans from election to election, “every single member of Congress you have in your party is pivotal to winning or keeping control.” Thus keeping a crooked or stained incumbent may be preferable to electing an honest challenger from the other side of the aisle, Hamel said.

Oakland University political scientist David Dulio said that when a favored incumbent runs into scandal-related problems, donors “circle the wagons” in their candidate’s defense.

“If you think about the decision to contribute, whether from the district or not, that’s more buy-in in some respects than just casting a ballot for somebody. You’re giving your hard-earned money, and those donors really believe in those candidates,” said Dulio, who teaches American politics, including campaigns and elections, Congress and political parties but wasn’t involved in the study.

The study looked at campaign contributions and voting results for members of the House – including then-U.S. Reps. John Conyers, D-Detroit, and David Bonior, D-Mount Clemens – whose scandals received coverage, and thus national attention, in the New York Times.

Scandals fell into four categories: financial, such as allegations of corruption; tax evasion and bribery; political, such as misuse of campaign money or House resources; sex, such as infidelity and sexual harassment; and other, such as drug use and drunken driving.

Of 103 scandals covered by the Times during the period, 63% involved financial misconduct. Sex scandals were a distant second.

Conyers was embroiled in two scandals during the period. In 1992, he was tagged as one of the “worst abusers” among about 300 present and former members who bounced checks in the House Bank. Later, a 2004 political scandal led to a House Ethics Committee investigation in which he accepted responsibility for using staffers to help other candidates for local and state office, including the successful Detroit City Council campaign of his wife. He also assigned his staff to help take care of his children. 

Conyers was one of the most influential lawmakers in Congress, chairing the House Judiciary and Government Operations committees when Democrats controlled the House.

The study didn’t extend to 2017, when Conyers resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal.

A 1996 scandal brought Bonior’s campaign finances into the study. University of Houston political scientist Scott Basinger, who compiled some of the data used in the study, said it involved allegedly improper employment practices. The House Ethics Committee rejected the allegations.

Bonior served as House majority whip and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002.

The study found members raise more contributions in the immediate aftermath of a scandal than similar non-scandal-tainted members.

In 1992, Conyers raised $264,152 before news of his scandal broke and $675,227 post-scandal. In 1996, Bonior raised $612,864 pre-scandal and $1,008,829 post-scandal. In 2004, Conyers raised $312,724 pre-scandal and $360,000 post-scandal.

The study emphasized that “donors’ reaction to scandal differs considerably from that of voters. On the whole, politicians embroiled in scandal garner fewer votes than their non-scandalous colleagues but they also raise more money.”

While scandal-damaged incumbents got 4% fewer votes on average and were 11% less apt to win reelection than their clean colleagues, they still won reelection about 80 percent of the time – as Conyers and Bonior did.

Two current Republican members, Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California, won reelection last November while under federal indictment. Grand juries charged Collins with insider training and Hunter with misusing campaign funds for personal purposes. Both remain in office while awaiting trial.

What might account for the “high rate of scandal survival?” the power of incumbency, the type of scandal and media coverage or visibility of the scandal?

“A scandal is an obvious political threat to a political career,” the study said. “Donors should, therefore, be more likely than voters to see a scandal as a challenge to overcome to protect their own interests, as opposed to an offense that warrants punishment.”

It said, “Both voters and donors became more protective of scandal-tainted politicians after 1994, which has been identified as an important moment, where national concerns such as ‘winning a majority’ supplanted more localized ones such as winning a single seat for many voters.”

Researchers found a marked distinction between pre-1994 scandals and post-1994 ones. That demarcation point reflects the “nationalization” of congressional races, the “rise of national political media and the 24-hour news cycle,” Hamel and co-author Michael Miller of Barnard College wrote.

Why 1994? From the 1950s until then, Democrats held a solid majority in the House, Hamel said. “When you have a secure majority, the majority doesn’t think they’re going to lose it and the opposition party doesn’t think there’s anything they can do to win.”

Since 1994, “majority control has always been in question,” he said. “The major parties have been close in the number of seats,” and “every single member of Congress you have in your party is pivotal to winning or keeping control.”

This article is adapted from CNS director Eric Freedman’s recent column in Domemagazine.com.

Provided to City Pulse by Capital News Service.

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