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.”
What We're Following See More »
"Ten days before the government would run out of funding, bipartisan negotiators are still struggling to reach a budget deal, and many lawmakers on Capitol Hill are already admitting Congress will need another stopgap bill to avoid a shutdown." Senator Cornyn (R-TX) said that while he "hopes" the government can avoid a shutdown, it's "likely" that there Congress will pass another short term budget before the January 19 deadline. "The clock is ticking," Cornyn told CNN, for legislators to compromise on border security and DACA, which is the primary sticking point in negotiations. Conservative GOP representatives are pushing for a party-line vote in the House, rather than wait for a bipartisan proposal from the Senate.
Last Wednesday, a Federal Judge in San Francisco ruled that the Obama-era DACA program must be allowed to continue until lawsuits play out in court. The Trump administration has appealed that decision on the grounds that President Obama exceeded his authority by creating the program, and that Congress must pass legislation protecting dreamers if they are to be allowed to stay. “It defies both law and common sense," said Attorney General Sessions in a statement, that a “single district court in San Francisco” had halted the administration’s plans. The White House will also petition the Supreme Court to intervene in the case, in an unusual bid to bypass the Ninth Circuit altogether.
A number of historical and environmental groups oppose construction of President Obama's presidential center in the proposed site, Jackson Park. Charles Birnbaum, president and founder of D.C.-based nonprofit, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, said that there is "plenty of land on the South Side that they could and should use," but that the organizers "have been adamant that they must have historic public parkland for the purpose." Birnbaum is joined by Friends of the Parks, Jackson Park Watch, Openlands, National Association for Olmsted Parks, Save the Midway, Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago, and 200 faculty at the University of Chicago, Obama's alma mater. President Trump's Environmental Protection Agency gets final say on approval, and may reject it if the center is found to have "adverse effects" on Jackson Park.