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Scandal Politics: The Downstream Effect

The scandals affecting the Obama administration could make some would-be candidates leery of running for political office.
Olivier Douliery
Pool/Getty Images
The scandals affecting the Obama administration could make some would-be candidates leery of running for political office.

Add this to the list of Democratic worries surrounding the wave of Obama administration scandals: the downstream effect.

It's prime candidate-recruiting season right now — the period in the two-year election cycle when officials in both parties fan out across the map in hopes of persuading prospective candidates to run for Congress. Issues and money always get plenty of attention, but the ability of party leaders to attract strong, capable candidates is vital to success on Election Day.

And that makes the timing of the political storm front especially inconvenient for Democrats.

It's not easy convincing candidates to put themselves through the grueling process of running for high office. Aside from the personal and family dimensions of the decision, there are more prosaic concerns: Will the party help with fundraising? Is the job worth the trouble or is Washington too broken to accomplish anything?

Prospective candidates also want to know about the end game. In other words, what are their chances of victory?

That's where the scandal trifecta fits in. Given the sacrifices candidates must make and the amount of time and energy required to run a top-notch campaign, some are leery of making a bid when the national political atmosphere threatens to be a significant drag.

"The environment really does matter in the recruiting process," said Guy Harrison, a former executive director with the National Republican Congressional Committee and a veteran of the candidate courtship game. "This is constantly going to be coming up in conversations. ... Recruitment isn't necessarily finding people to run. People bubble up to the surface. You work to reduce the barriers to running. That's why atmospherics matter so much."

So far, there isn't much evidence that potential Democratic candidates are spooked. The party committees whose job is electing Democrats to the House and Senate insist the scandals aren't a problem and haven't required any additional hand-holding.

"The recruiting environment isn't about daily ups-and-downs because the deciding factor for our top candidates is the prospect of ending the dysfunctional, chaotic and obstructionist reign of House Republicans," said Emily Bittner, press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "In fact, House Republicans themselves are our greatest recruiting tool, and there is no sign that they will get their act together and finally be more popular than head lice anytime this century."

Still, the recent decisions of two A-list Democratic Senate prospects not to run in 2014 sparked speculation that, at least in some red states, the 2014 outlook is gloomy. While former Rep. Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota and Rep. John Barrow of Georgia made their announcements before the three administration scandals took full shape, they served as a reminder that red state Democrats would be saddled with some Obama administration policies that may not play well in culturally conservative states.

Equally important is the burden of history. The 2014 elections will occur against the backdrop of the "six-year itch," which refers to the tendency of the party controlling the White House to suffer big losses in the sixth-year of a president's tenure.

And there's yet another reason for prospective Democratic candidates to pause before jumping in. If historical trends hold true, the demographic composition of the 2014 midterm electorate will look considerably different than the one that re-elected Barack Obama in 2012: It's likely to be a more Republican-friendly electorate.

If the current controversies are going to depress recruiting efforts, it's more likely to be reflected in House races than in Senate ones since House elections are more easily influenced by national political forces — think Watergate in 1974 or Obamacare in 2010 — than Senate contests.

"Unlike House races, Senate campaigns have the resources to introduce new information about themselves and their opponents and distinguish the race from the national environment," said Matt Canter, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

When it comes to the House, where seats go before the voters every two years, there's more incentive to sit out an election cycle than in the Senate, where opportunities come up much more infrequently.

Given the present conditions, Harrison explained, "Candidates will say, 'Why wouldn't I wait another two years for the next presidential election?' "

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is confident the spate of controversies won't have an effect on recruitment at any level.

"In spite of this being the worst, most polarized environment I've seen in 20 years, there are still opportunities to make a difference," she said. "These so-called scandals are not going to stick or adhere to individual candidates and ultimately Republicans' continued desire to see Obama fail will backfire."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Charles Mahtesian is NPR's Politics Editor.
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