Prepare for Charlie Rangel to become a household name during the fall campaigns, political operatives from both parties are saying. The Republican plan for August, according to aides TPM spoke with this week, is to tie the party to Rangel and the fact he was charged with 13 violations yesterday. The GOP says it’s only fair game, since the Democrats in 2006 ran on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pledge to “drain the swamp” and tried to link all of the Republican candidates with disgraced former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX).
Republicans are tickled pink that a spotlight is shining on Rangel (D-NY) just as the campaign season kicks into high gear, and campaign operatives are advising GOP candidates across the country to try and nationalize his ethics charges and get Democrats to defend him. Vulnerable House Democrats are feeling the squeeze, and Republicans are digging up their 2006 statements accusing the GOP leadership of fostering a culture of corruption. The looming midterms are one reason House Democrats had been urging Rangel behind-the-scenes to cut a deal, and why Republicans are saying he missed his window.
“If this happens in September, this is not good for Democrats. It chews up space they would like to be devoting to other issues and highlights what people think about Congress which is it is led by people who think one set of rules apply to them and one set of rules apply to the rest of the American people,” former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove said on Fox News’ Hannity last night.
Democrats swear up and down Rangel is an isolated case and have quickly been donating funds that he gave to their campaigns — with Rep. Joe Sestak and Rep. Betsy Markey the latest to shed his cash in the last 24 hours. More than 30 Democrats have either returned the donations or have given them to charity.
If the GOP has its way, House Democrats in every close race will be asked over the August recess if they want Rangel to step down or if they’ll return donations he gave them. “These are guys who ran on ethics in 2006,” a Republican campaign aide told TPM in an interview.
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) is at the top of the GOP’s target list since Rangel gave him $19,000 in donations. Murphy called for Rangel to resign but hasn’t done anything yet with the funds. (Chances are highly likely that he will.)
Murphy, after all, hammered Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick over $15,000 Firzpartrick received from DeLay’s political action committee, calling him a “loyal soldier to Tom DeLay and the Republican machine,” so “they are rewarding him with money,” the Allentown Morning Call reported on April 19, 2006. Murphy kept using the issue on the stump even after Fitzpatrick had gotten rid of the funds.
GOP aides said Rangel’s problems are likely to appear on Pennsylvania television airwaves, and that they think Rep. John Boccieri (D-OH) is just as susceptible as Murphy, since he ran on an ethics plan in 2006. Boccieri has received $53,000 from Rangel. His GOP rival already reminds voters that Boccieri voted to allow Rangel to keep his gavel as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee (Rangel eventually stepped down from the powerful position.)
“This was somebody who was protected by the Democratic majority,” the Republican campaign aide said. “Our argument is that it’s a larger symptom of the ethics issues that have plagued this Congress.”
Sound familiar? Pelosi’s “Drain the swamp” pledge became a refrain in dozens of races in 2006, and Democratic candidates ran ads linking DeLay and Jack Abramoff with the Republican party, promising to end a “culture of corruption.”
On Thursday Pelosi told reporters she has drained that swamp, which she said was at “criminal” levels in 2006 when took over.
“[D]rain the swamp we did, because this was a terrible place. And we have made a tremendous difference and I take great pride in that,” Pelosi said. “Are there going to be individual issues to be dealt with? Yes. I never said that there wouldn’t be. But we would have a process to deal with it and it would be internal and it would be external.”
When asked about whether Democrats have drained that swamp in their nearly four years in power, Hoyer insisted this week, “I didn’t use that term.”
Members returning home next week for a long recess are being greeted by NRCC releases to the local press reports asking why they are “sitting on tainted cash.” Reps. Tom Perriello and Gerry Connolly, both vulnerable freshman Democrats in Virginia, said this week that the Rangel issue won’t have traction back home.
Connolly told reporters gathered for a breakfast hosted by Third Way that it was “more of a distraction” than anything else. Perriello was exasperated, saying it was an issue pushed by the media. When asked if his constituents would ask about it, he insisted: “People want jobs!”
New Hampshire Republicans are also barraging Rep. Paul Hodes (D) as he runs for Senate, saying he is being “greedy” for keeping $10,000 that Rangel’s PAC donated to his campaign. Actually, Rangel gave to Hodes’ previous House campaigns, money that wasn’t transferred to his Senate effort, and a spokesman says the money was spent long ago. The issue seems to be gaining a modicum of traction in the Granite State, where the Union Leader reported that Hodes has asked for Rangel to step down.
Not surprisingly, Minority Leader John Boehner said the ethics problem isn’t an isolated one at all. “This isn’t about Charlie Rangel. This is about Speaker Pelosi’s most glaring broken promise - to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington,” Boehner told reporters Thursday.
Pelosi applauded the ethics process, echoing Hoyer saying that it’s “working” early this week. But she admitted this may not be the end of the issue.
“The chips will have to fall where they may politically,” Pelosi said.
Kyle Leighton contributed to this report