Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Ethics Could Cost Dems CT Senate Seat

If Democrats weren’t already worried about the recent turnabout in the Connecticut Senate race, they got more bad news over the weekend. Republican challenger Linda McMahon filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics over the conduct of her opponent Rep. Chris Murphy. She accuses Murphy of getting a sweetheart loan from a bank that had donated to his Congressional campaign while he was serving on the House Financial Services Committee.

While Democrats will answer by pointing out McMahon’s own troubled financial past as well as that the complaint won’t necessarily lead to legal difficulties, this is a major problem for Murphy. Connecticut politics was turned upside down two years ago when similar questions about sweetheart deals for former Senator Chris Dodd forced him out of office after 30 years. Moreover, it levels the playing field between the two vying to succeed Joe Lieberman since the sort of public corruption that Murphy is accused of is generally viewed by voters as more serious than anything to do with McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation. Given that, contrary to all expectations, the race between Murphy and McMahon is tied and that the latter will almost certainly outspend her rival by a huge margin in the next two months, there is no longer any doubt that this race has become a tossup that may soon be leaning to the Republicans.

As Politico reports, the detail of the Murphy complaint doesn’t paint the congressman in the best light. A few months after his first term in Congress began, Murphy was sued over his defaulting on a loan that originated with Webster Bank. That lawsuit was eventually dropped but the bank, which is listed as a contributor to the congressman’s campaign, then gave Murphy an additional loan and charged him the prime rate rather than one that would be given to an ordinary consumer. Members of Congress are prohibited from receiving any deal that a member of the public cannot obtain.

Both Murphy and the bank claim no wrongdoing was committed. But the transactions appear to be symptoms of the usual influence peddling in which politicians are handled with kid gloves by businesses that stand to benefit from the decision made in Washington. Murphy may be entitled to the presumption of innocence under the law but in the court of public opinion he will soon find that the appearance of corruption will convince voters that he is guilty until presumed innocent. His answer to the charges, in which he says that they merely show he’s “not a perfect person,” may be the best he can come up with under the circumstances but are not likely to convince voters he is clean.

This will give McMahon a club with which to beat Murphy until the election and, given her considerable resources, it is likely that few in the state will not be aware of the case by the time she is done pounding the theme in her ad campaign. Though the Democrat has the advantage of running in a blue state and having the opportunity to catch Barack Obama’s coattails, the last thing he needed was something that would allow voters to see him, rather than the wrestling mogul, as the ethically challenged candidate.

While I was deeply skeptical of McMahon’s chances of doing better this year than in her first try for the Senate in 2010, it looks like I — along with a lot of others — may have underestimated her and overestimated Murphy. Republicans who wrote off their chances of winning the Senate when Todd Akin went off the deep end on abortion in Missouri may have found another pickup that will allow them to be in the majority next year.