The Veterans Affairs scandal isn’t bad just for President Obama. Witness the growing chorus of Democratic congressional candidates desperate to get some distance from the administration.
This week, would-be Democratic officeholders from moderate- and conservative-leaning districts started to call on Obama to fire VA Secretary Eric Shinseki after accusations that the department covered up long waits that led to the deaths of former service members.
“Those responsible must be held accountable, including Secretary Shinseki,” said Aimee Belgard, the Democrat running for the swing-district seat held by retiring Republican Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey.
“Unfortunately, this administration has fallen short in providing the kind of care that our veterans have earned,” said Democratic Rep. John Barrow, whose conservative Georgia district has an above-average number of veterans and is a perennial GOP target.
And in Florida, Democratic attorney Gwen Graham, running against Republican Rep. Steve Southerland in another veteran-heavy district, said, “If the people in Washington can’t show real leadership on this now, then they need to be replaced.”
And that’s just the start. Allegations that the White House reacted slowly to the department’s problems has been the top story in Washington all week, and the attention and anger it has generated nationwide shows no sign of dissipating.
So far, the president appears committed to keeping Shinseki in place. He told reporters Wednesday that he still had faith that the former Army chief of staff and Vietnam veteran could fix the VA’s problems. But most Democratic candidates who have called for Shinseki’s resignation face difficult races in the fall, a sign of the issue’s rising potency less than six months before Election Day.
Rep. Scott Peters, facing a formidable reelection challenge from Republican Carl DeMaio in his San Diego-based district, said he would welcome a change at the top of the VA, even as Obama continues to voice confidence in Shinseki. “I’m not sure that confidence extends to the veterans community,” Peters told National Journal.
Patrick Henry Hays, a Democrat vying for outgoing GOP Rep. Tim Griffin’s seat in Arkansas, concurred in a Facebook post on Wednesday, writing that the “deaths of veterans waiting for care is a national tragedy, made even worse because it did not have to happen.”
On the Senate side, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose first TV ad this year touted her work promoting military voting, was the first Democratic candidate to ask for Shinseki’s resignation. She faces Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (who has not called for Shinseki’s ouster) in what is expected to be one of the most competitive races of 2014.
“I don’t see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place,” Grimes said.
Several vulnerable Democratic incumbents expressed intense disapproval for the delays in service but declined to call for Shinseki’s firing until the investigation was complete. Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana were both quick to point to their personal outreach to local VAs in recent days.
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First, it was Sean Spicer. Then Reince Priebus. Now, presidential adviser Steve Bannon, perhaps the administration's biggest lightning rod for criticism, is out. “White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement. “We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.” That's not to say the parting of ways isn't controversial. Bannon says he submitted his resignation on Aug. 7, but earlier today, "the president had told senior aides that he had decided to remove Mr. Bannon."
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