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What Happens When Political Spouses Misbehave?

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has endured weeks of negative headlines as The Washington Post thoroughly examines his relationship with a campaign donor. But as the investigation moves along, his wife, first lady Maureen McDonnell, is coming under increased scrutiny as well.

Depending on the level of the Virginia governor’s involvement and legal jeopardy, his future political career is uncertain. McDonnell is prohibited from seeking re-election this fall but he was on the outskirts of the 2016 presidential discussion before the scandal broke. And he might have the opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate over the next decade, if he so chooses.

If the first lady ends up taking more of the blame for accepting gifts, Bob McDonnell wouldn’t be the first politician with a spouse in legal trouble. Here is a quick look at a few politicians and how their spouses’ legal problems affected their political careers.

In Massachusetts, Rep. John F. Tierney’s wife pleaded guilty to “aiding and abetting the filing of false tax returns” in relation to her brothers’ illegal gambling operation about a month before the 2010 elections. The Democratic congressman won that race, and his wife subsequently served a month in prison.

The family legal troubles came up again during the 2012 campaign, when one of Tierney’s brothers-in-law claimed that the congressman knew about everything that was going on. But Tierney denied the charge directly in a campaign ad and narrowly won re-election with 48 percent last fall.

In Illinois, Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s husband was indicted in 2004 and served five months in prison in 2006 for bank fraud in conjunction with how he ran a nonprofit group. He was released from prison a few days before the midterm elections, when the Democratic congresswoman was re-elected to a fifth term with 75 percent in a very Democratic district.

In Michigan, Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s wife hit legal trouble in 2009. The former Detroit city councilor was released from prison earlier this year after three years in prison. Meanwhile, the Democratic congressman has been re-elected twice since, including in a competitive primary in a redrawn district in 2012.

In Pennsylvania, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky’s political aspirations were stalled, at least temporarily, by the legal troubles of her spouse.

The Democratic congresswoman lost her seat in the Republican wave of 1994. Six years later, she attempted a comeback by challenging conservative GOP Sen. Rick Santorum in his first re-election bid. But she dropped out of the race in January of 2000, days before her husband’s financial and legal troubles started to resurface. Former Iowa Rep. Ed Mezvinsky eventually served five years in prison and the couple divorced.

Margolies is attempting a second comeback, this time in Pennsylvania’s 13th District, being vacated by Democratic Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz.

In each case, none of the elected politicians were indicted or were found to be directly involved. In addition, Tierney and Schakowsky had a few terms under their belt (in Conyers’ case a few decades) before their spouses got into trouble, so it may have been easier to weather the storm.

It may be too early to declare the end of McDonnell’s career; if allegations of wrongdoing stick mostly to his wife, a comeback is possible. If he is found to be more deeply involved, his political horizons would narrow considerably.

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