House Republicans hit the airwaves on Tuesday, accusing vulnerable Democratic freshmen of serving two masters in the wake of the indictment of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.): fickle voters in their battleground districts and House Democratic leadership.
Jefferson’s deepening legal woes could muddy the political landscape in his New Orleans-based district, where hard-fought statewide elections will take place later this year.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said the committee has already begun setting up shop in the districts of Democratic Reps. Christopher Carney (Pa.), Nick Lampson (Texas), Jerry McNerney (Calif.) and Steve Kagen (Wis.). He said the NRCC will hit the freshmen for both voting in a closed-door March Caucus meeting to put Jefferson on the Homeland Security Committee, also while calling for Jefferson to step aside once he was indicted on Monday.
“These guys will go out on the campaign trail and say something and behind closed doors they do the bidding of their leadership — to the point where they’re doing a disservice to their constituents,” Spain said. “We’re going to point out any Democrat who is calling for the resignation or recusal of William Jefferson that they stood silent during Democratic Caucus meeting to place him on the Homeland Security Committee.”
“Anybody who has spoken up on ethics and who we believe has made himself a target on this issue,” Spain added. “We’re going to point out the hypocrisy … we participated in some talk radio this morning … the press releases are going out.”
Silas Lee, a New Orleans-based Democratic pollster, said it’s too early to tell how Jefferson’s indictment will play out for Democrats nationally. Still, it could be a delicate balancing act for party leaders, Lee suggested.
“Democrats are trying to maintain some distance and adhere to what they said in the midterms,” he said. “Simply because one person has an indictment doesn’t mean that the Democrats are 100 percent vulnerable.”
To counter the Republican push, Democrats are hoping voters see the Jefferson debacle as an isolated incident, what one campaign aide termed “one bad apple” instead of a “rotten bunch.” Democrats also plan to emphasize Jefferson’s quick resignation from the Small Business Committee on Tuesday as an example of House leadership’s swift discipline of the allegedly wayward Member.
“You have at least seven Republican Members who are under some form of investigation: Reps. Rick Renzi [Ariz.], John Doolittle [Calif.], Jerry Lewis [Calif.], Tom Feeney [Fla.], Gary Miller [Calif.], Tim Murphy [Pa.]and Ken Calvert [Calif.],” the aide said. “This isn’t going to derail us from seeking the changes in what we ran on and won on in 2006 in terms of the ‘culture of corruption.’”
When the dust settles, Democratic leaders are betting that their handling of the Jefferson indictment will contrast well with what they say was poor management of ex-Rep. Tom Delay’s (R-Texas) exit from the Majority Leader’s office. After all, Democrats say privately, the vote to seat Jefferson on Homeland Security never actually went to the floor.
“What this situation will show is the two different ways in which the two parties have handled matters dealing with corruption and Members under indictment,” the campaign aide said. “The point is that he’s not on the Homeland Security committee. … They had an indicted member in Tom DeLay sitting on the Appropriations Committee.”
While Jefferson’s indictment may prove to be a headache for some battleground Democrats, the debacle is more immediately acute for local and state party officials in Louisiana. With a full ballot in Louisiana this fall, including races for governor and other statewide offices, a Jefferson resignation would mean a special election to fill the seat, likely returning familiar faces like state Rep. Karen Carter (D) and state Sen. Derrick Shepherd (D) to the Congressional race.
A source with knowledge of New Orleans politics said Shepherd and others already are positioning themselves for myriad electoral possibilities the Jefferson indictment poses. Last year, Shepherd ran third to Carter and Jefferson in an open primary, before the top two went to a runoff. On Tuesday, Shepherd didn’t rule out the possibility he would run again.
“I’ll definitely consider it,” he said.
But making matters from the Big Easy to Main Street more complex are rumors that the embattled lawmaker has no intention to step down. And with any trial presumably dragging on for months — even until November 2008 — some Louisiana political observers say it’s not out of the question that Jefferson will try to pull off the impossible two election cycles in a row: winning under a cloud of controversy.
“I don’t think he’s going to resign,” said Julie Vezinot, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Democratic Party. “Its quite possible [he will run in 2008] — he’s from that area and he has a lot of dedicated constituents.”