For Vetting Candidates’ Sexual Misconduct, It’s a Brave New World

Both parties face the challenge of eliminating bad apples before they’re on the ballot.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach (left), at a minimum-wage rally in Philadelphia in 2015
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Danielle Bernstein
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Danielle Bernstein
Jan. 2, 2018, 8 p.m.

As the cloud of sexual-misconduct allegations continues to hover over Congress, it’s unclear how well either party is positioned to weed out candidates with potentially damaging pasts.

Accusations of inappropriate behavior came to light in mid-December against Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach, sullying the top contender in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, a battleground seat. Days earlier, Democrat Andrea Ramsey dropped her bid in Kansas’s 3rd District when a 2005 lawsuit came to light that revealed a former subordinate claimed he was fired after rebuffing her advances. Both seats are top battlegrounds this year.

It’s an issue that campaign committees and opposition-research firms are grappling with in real time during a national movement cutting through politics, media, and other industries.

Former Rep. Steve Israel, who served two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said both parties’ House campaign arms must upgrade what are already robust vetting operations.

“In this environment, I think both committees are going to have to—if they haven’t already—beef up those research departments to take a solid look at potential sexual-harassment issues,” Israel said. “… And I think both committees are probably willing to bear that expense to do more detailed and granular research before it’s too late.”

National Journal reached out to each of the four congressional campaign committees to see if they are altering their approach to screen candidates, but none responded to interview requests.

The parties face inherent challenges, even when a candidate’s past is known. While in a corporate office a toxic figure can be fired, anyone who can gather the requisite signatures can end up on a ballot.

“We have a political system where anyone can run for office, anyone can make their case to the voters, and the overwhelming majority of elections don’t get press attention,” a Democratic strategist said.

In Alabama last year, top Republicans were clear in their distaste for Roy Moore during the Senate special-election primary, spending significant resources to nominate Sen. Luther Strange.

It wasn’t until the general election that several women accused Moore of sexually harassing or assaulting them, including, in some cases, as minors. And even then, in a scenario mirroring the 2016 presidential election, the party distanced itself but didn’t fully cut off its support for a damaged candidate; the Republican National Committee renewed its financial assistance for Moore shortly before the election.

“No one gave Roy Moore permission to run,” the Democratic strategist said. “The parties just don’t have that kind of top-down control.”

Meanwhile, private and party-aligned opposition-research firms don’t always operate in a way that is conducive to bringing past allegations to light.

“Opposition research really focuses on what’s public. … We’re really looking at what any ordinary citizen could conceivably obtain on his or her own, and we’re putting it together in a research matrix to build out narratives that campaigns and candidates can use,” said Alexandra Smith, executive director of America Rising PAC, a Republican opposition-research firm.

“Journalists, on the other hand—we see much more of their work as what occurred, for example, with the Washington Post reporters in the Alabama Senate race,” Smith said. “These brave women came forward to these reporters, but they were sources that these reporters had developed through their own means. We just operate differently.”

Public records such as court documents can reveal past misconduct by potential candidates. But more often than not, word-of-mouth stories won’t make it to a researcher the way they might to a journalist. Interviewing past employees or others who have interacted with a candidate is a time-consuming task.

Still, “a good opposition researcher has always been focused on this kind of thing,” said Sonia Van Meter, a Democratic opposition researcher at Stanford Campaigns. As allegations become more of a focus in future campaigns, she said, “oppo is going to be responsible for corroborating things like timelines, and do other sort of basic journalistic things that will determine whether the stories are viable beyond just private matters that get discussed.”

When it comes to finding out about allegations that aren’t a matter of public record, some firms will take on the cumbersome task of talking “to people familiar with those situations,” Van Meter said. “And it will be labor intensive, but it will be absolutely worth it.”

A firm also relies on candidates’ own recollections and self-reflections as it begins to examine past behavior. Smith said her firm encourages them “to be as forthcoming as they can ahead of time.”

“I think our candidate interviews are going to have be more diligent and more thorough and more unpleasant, unfortunately, for candidates going forward, to make sure that these sorts of things are caught and known about long before they come to light,” Van Meter said.

Whether candidates will be more forthcoming—or choose not to run in the first place—remains to be seen.

Another concern for firms is that a victim’s story may not carry as much weight if first delivered through a partisan group, as opposed to an objective news source.

“It’s entirely possible that our existing process could uncover some of this information,” Smith said. “But in terms of victims coming out and telling their stories, it seems like journalism is a more natural fit, a more natural vehicle for delivering that kind of information.”

Firms “only deal with things we can prove,” Van Meter pointed out, making the case that researchers have room to develop a bigger role in uncovering allegations.

Often, it takes a private figure becoming public to bring allegations to light—something committees and firms can’t proactively predict.

“If you are a woman working in a restaurant and your boss is sexually harassing you in some way or abusing you, there’s not often any recourse,” the Democratic strategist said. “But if that restaurant manager 20 years later runs for Congress, all of a sudden someone wants to hear your story, for the first time in your life maybe. And so I think that’s the process that happens with these kinds of allegations.”

Ally Mutnick contributed to this article.
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