This has not been a good week for Democrats running for the Senate. But rather than their problems being focused on the congressional party’s difficult relationship with President Obama or the burden that defending his policies has placed upon Democratic incumbents in red states, this week their problem is on transportation. No, not transportation policy but the fact that shady transactions to pay for their campaign transportation are creating a distraction that is making it harder for the party’s candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana to stay close to their Republican rivals.
Today’s unwelcome headline for the president’s party concerns Kentucky senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes has been losing ground recently in her efforts to unseat Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, so the last thing she needed was for Politico to start taking an interest in how she’s paying for her campaign bus. But rather than paying attention to her attacks on McConnell or even her efforts to distance herself from President Obama and his attacks on the coal industry, the publication devoted a major feature today to the question of a possible scandal involving an in-kind contribution from the candidate’s father that may violate campaign finance laws.
Politico’s analysis of Federal Election Commission records shows that the costs listed for the campaign bus that she has been using to crisscross the Bluegrass State are a fraction of what the going rate for renting such a vehicle would be. The reason for this anomaly is that a company owned by Grimes’s father Jerry Lundergan, a former Democratic Party state chairman and legislator, operates the bus. The difference between the fair market value of the rental and the minimal rate her campaign is paying constitutes an illegal in-kind contribution and may open Lundergan to an FEC investigation and fines.
As Politico notes, catering and event planning companies owned by Lundergan have handled much of the details and logistics of his daughter’s effort to win a Senate seat. This has enabled her to save a lot of money. As the story related, though the Grimes campaign hasn’t stinted on the frills associated with campaign events, including some held at exclusive venues, she has still managed to spend far less on such items than comparable events held by McConnell. While some might focus on the fact that her campaign has spent a considerable amount on services provided by companies that are either owned by her relatives or those that employ them, the real problem here is that the Lundergan clan appears to be skirting laws that strictly regulate the way candidates raise and spend money.
This is not the first time Lundergan has run into trouble with the law. The candidate’s father was forced to resign as state chairman after being convicted of a felony in 1989 for accepting no-bid contracts for the Democrats that were not only shady but violations of the law. However, he avoided further trouble when courts ruled his actions to be a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
Does any of this rise to the level of a full-blown scandal that could sink Grimes? No. But it is a distraction as well as a disturbing reminder of her father’s troubled ethical past. And it comes just at the time when she needs to start building momentum rather than letting McConnell expand his narrow lead as the campaign heads into the fall homestretch.
At the same time, the far more serious questions being asked about Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s use of government funds to pay for campaign expenses are starting to get louder. Reviews of her schedule in the past few years have revealed two more campaign trips that were paid for by the taxpayers rather than the senator’s donors.
Landrieu is attempting to downplay the revelations as being just a “minor mistake.” Were she safely reelected, she might be able to stick to that story and, like Missouri’s Senator Claire McCaskill, just pay a fine and back taxes on ill-gotten savings that helped her stay in office. But since this has come out while she is fighting for her political life, Landrieu may pay a higher cost in lost votes than she ever will in accounting for the way her campaign has looted the public treasury. The mere fact that Rep. Bill Cassidy has been able to dub her campaign “Air Landrieu” may cause more of a problem than the efforts of ethics probers.
Neither Grimes nor Lundergan should be counted out just because of these problems, but the difficulties both are facing have added to the handicaps that have been placed upon their reelection efforts by the president’s policies. At a time when they would have both liked to stay on the offensive, their transportation problems have given their opponents damaging talking points and set back an already uphill struggle for Democrats this fall.