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In the Age of Trump, Can Scandal Still Sink a Politician?

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In the Age of Trump, Can Scandal Still Sink a Politician?

In the Age of Trump, Can Scandal Still Sink a Politician?
December 07
22:45 2018

Representatives Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins campaigned this fall while out on bail for felony charges. Representative Greg Gianforte had been convicted of misdemeanor assault. Senator Bob Menendez’s trial on bribery and fraud charges had resulted in a hung jury.

How did voters respond? All four were re-elected last month, Mr. Menendez by 10 percentage points.

Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi wasn’t burdened with legal problems in her runoff election last week, but she did face an uproar after saying she would attend “a public hanging” if a key supporter asked her to — a controversial comment in a state that holds the historical record for the highest number of lynchings. Ms. Hyde-Smith won, too.

Now, as dozens of Democrats consider running for president, the recent success of candidates with varying degrees of baggage has revived interest in a question that has absorbed politicians and strategists since President Trump’s surprise victory two years ago: What, if anything, matters?

Could the plagiarism allegation that Joseph R. Biden Jr. faced in 1988 still be a problem? Mr. Biden dismissed complaints that he lifted passages for his speeches as “much ado about nothing,” but ended his presidential campaign six days later. What about “T-Bone,” a figure in Cory Booker’s stump speeches in 2007, who the senator from New Jersey was accused of making up? At the time Mr. Booker insisted T-Bone was “1,000 percent a real person,” but has never mentioned him again.

“The rise of Donald Trump was a game changer. We are living in a stage of new normalcy,” said Michael Avenatti, the liberal lawyer who rose to fame representing the pornographic star Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against Mr. Trump, and who had been talking himself up as a 2020 contender.

Mr. Avenatti was arrested last month on suspicion of domestic violence. Addressing the issue in an interview last week, he said, “I don’t think that any of it is disqualifying, but it depends on how it plays out.”

But on Tuesday, hours after this article was published online, Mr. Avenatti announced that he would not pursue a presidential bid “out of respect” for his family. “But for their concerns, I would run,” he said in a statement.

Strategists from both parties agree that once-controversial issues like divorce, sexuality, moderate drug use and the evergreen mistake of cursing on a hot mic are no longer fatal for political careers. Character issues still pose a threat, yet Mr. Trump faced an array of them — from honesty and extramarital behavior to alleged abuse of women — and he won the presidency.

“It used to be you couldn’t run if you had an affair. Well, that’s certainly not true anymore,” said former Representative Tom Davis, who took over their chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee at the end of the Clinton administration. “The voters have made their decisions on those types of issues.”

While many American politicians have weathered controversy so long as their supporters stuck by them, candidates and strategists say Mr. Trump has offered a new playbook for moving past even the most serious charges, one successfully deployed by both Mr. Hunter and Mr. Collins during their midterm races: Never apologize, always play offense, attack the “fake news,” and, finally, distract from the issue by kick-starting a new controversy.

It’s a tactic that the president has used to combat a long list of problems, from the special counsel investigation to his personal finances.

The crowded Democratic primary contest will offer the highest-profile test yet of whether the Trump era’s reality show rules about controversy apply beyond the protagonist-in-chief. The question now facing the potential contenders and their campaigns is not whether they have baggage, but what problems are likely to stick.

The flood of money into politics after the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case may mean that a pay-for-play scandal now must come with a far higher price tag to affect voters, for instance.

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