Corruption: The perennial campaign issue
With congressional elections coming up in November, Democrats have focused on blasting what they call a Republican “culture of corruption.” (CNN, January 18, 2006)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is moving full steam ahead on a Democratic strategy to paint the GOP as corrupt ahead of the midterm elections … Pelosi has decided to make ethics a core pillar of House Democrats’ push for the majority this fall … (The Hill, August 14, 2018)
If this year’s midterm battle for majority control of the House feels familiar, well, that’s because it is. In 2006, Nancy Pelosi teamed up with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair Rahm Emanuel, to attack the Republican “culture of corruption.” Pelosi’s message to voters that year was that “you cannot advance the people’s agenda unless you drain the swamp that is Washington, D.C.” Twelve years later, Pelosi is banking on the same message to take back the House.
Why? Because it worked for Democrats last time, according to most reports. Majorities of voters consistently say that ethics and corruption are important factors in how they vote, and reform is a message that resonates with voters. But as was the case in 2006, the strategy appears to be leadership-driven, with Pelosi almost single-handedly nationalizing the anti-corruption message.
In 2006, the Democrats ran on a “Six for 06” platform that included national security, jobs and wages, energy independence, affordable health care, retirement security, and college access for all. For all of the campaign talk about corruption that year, ethics reform was not one of the platform’s big, six issues. (Democrats did, however, pass an ethics reform package in 2007.) This year, Democrats have decided to go with a scaled back, “For the People” platform that includes lowering health care and prescription drug costs, increasing worker pay, and cleaning up corruption.
As Dave Hopkins and others have recently pointed out, voters rarely pay attention to party platforms. Few Democratic voters in 2006 knew of the “Six for 06” platform and even fewer likely know about this year’s “For the People” platform. Because midterm elections are typically referendums on the president, a platform essentially provides cover for party leaders who are accused of having no message other than opposing the president. A platform is something Pelosi can point to when, for example, Newt Gingrich claims that the Democrats’ message this year is “they hate Trump.”
Most Democratic voters in 2006 didn’t know much about the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal or the Mark Foley (R-FL) congressional page scandal and this year, most won’t know about the Rep. Chris Collins’ (R-NY) insider trading scandal. There’s also a general sense today that the steady flow of corruption stories out of Washington have inured voters to outrage. It doesn’t make much sense for Democratic candidates running campaigns in Iowa, Oregon, or Texas to focus on Chris Collins.
But it makes sense for Nancy Pelosi to do so. Her job is to rally the liberal base because that’s where the money is. Big campaign donors are on the left and right of politics and party leaders rely heavily on their support. If these donors are excited about Republican corruption (and the possibility of impeachment), she needs to signal the party’s support for these issues. For example, Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer has donated $29 million so far this cycle and is focusing his efforts on impeaching Trump and engaging young voters. And Donald Sussman, who (ironically) opposes big money in politics and favors moving to a publicly financed campaign system, has so far this cycle contributed about $5 million to the House Majority PAC, a Pelosi-affiliated super PAC.
As part of her anti-corruption message, Pelosi has promised that if Democrats take majority control, they will push for ethics rules that (among other things) will require the president to sell off his business holdings. Pelosi has also pledged that Democrats will take up campaign finance reform, focusing on transparency and public financing.
At the district level, it’s unlikely that Democratic candidates are campaigning on issues like insider trading, emoluments, or cabinet secretaries improperly using taxpayer money. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), who has worked with party leaders on the platform’s anti-corruption measures, acknowledges as much. “We’re not asking you to pay attention to every detail of every scandal,” he said. “We just want you to know Democrats have a program to create a different kind of government.”
For her part, Nancy Pelosi is focused on messaging to donors and the base, and doing what it takes to ensure big Democratic wins this November. Her fundraising skills are simply unparalleled. As of June, she had raised $83 million for the DCCC – more than double the amount raised by the party’s next biggest fundraiser, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM). Lujan is the current chair of the DCCC. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has brought in $3 million for the party and assistant Democratic leader James Clyburn (D-SC) has raised $3.7 million.
As in past campaigns, the Republican strategy this cycle is to paint every Democratic candidate as a Pelosi clone. She is a tremendously polarizing politician, portrayed as embodying pretty much everything Republicans oppose. She also faces more opposition from within her own party than ever before. She does, however, have a proven knack for speaking the language big donors like to hear and that’s a skill Democrats may find hard to replace.