This has not been the most enlightening or nourishing of election seasons, to put it mildly. There are few substantive themes or arguments defining the debate; campaigns have instead been consumed by disputes over candidates’ residency or over the originality of boilerplate language in campaign platforms nobody reads. Meanwhile, Washington pundits have been fixated on President Obama’s awkward dance with Democratic candidates in red and purple states, flying into echo-chamber tizzies whenever Obama dares to suggest that his policy agenda (much of which is more popular than he himself is) depends on enough of these candidates winning their races.
But for sheer inanity, it’s hard to beat what’s been underway the past few days in Virginia, where Democrat Mark Warner, the cell phone tycoon-turned-governor-turned-senator, has been holding a steady lead in the polls against Ed Gillespie, a mild-mannered Republican operative and lobbyist. Gillespie has had difficulty getting purchase against Warner, which helps explain why he leapt at the recent sniff of scandal around Warner: reports that Warner dangled the prospect of a federal judgeship for the daughter of a Democratic state senator, to keep him from resigning from a seat in southwestern Virginia that Republicans would easily pick up, thus handing them control of the state Senate.
That does sound pretty sketchy in a Frank Underwood sort of way, doesn’t it? Except, of course, there’s a lot more to the story, which makes the Republicans’ attempt to make hay of it one of the most comically brazen gambits in the history of political attacks.
To keep it brief: In early June, Democratic state senator Phillip Puckett, announced his resignation from a seat he had held since 1998. The resignation was devastating to Governor Terry McAuliffe, as it not only would hand control of the Senate to Republicans, who already held the legislature’s lower chamber, but would further undermine McAuliffe’s overriding priority, accepting the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act for 400,000 low-income Virginians. Why ever would Puckett resign at such a crucial moment, with health coverage for tens of thousands of his own constituents hanging in the balance? Well, here’s why (as the Washington Post put it):
Republicans appear to have outmaneuvered Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state budget standoff by persuading a Democratic senator to resign his seat … Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) will announce his resignation Monday, effective immediately, paving the way to appoint his daughter to a judgeship and Puckett to the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission, three people familiar with the plan said Sunday.
Yes, indeed. Del. Terry G. Kilgore, the Republican chairman of the tobacco commission (which disburses grants funded by the national tobacco litigation settlement), told the Post that the commission was planning to meet as early as that very week to consider appointing Puckett. Kilgore “disputed the notion that Puckett was resigning in exchange for the tobacco commission job, but he said the resignation made Puckett available to take the position.” Convenient! Puckett’s salary, Kilgore added, “would be determined by the commission.”
As for Puckett's daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, she had been serving as a Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge, but merely on a temporary appointment, the Post explained. The House had approved her appointment to a six-year term when it reconvened early this year, but the (Democratic-led) Senate had declined to confirm her, in line with its policy against appointing the relatives of active legislators to the bench. But voila: if Puckett resigned, the newly Republican-led legislature would appoint her to a full six-year term:
“It should pave the way for his daughter,” Kilgore said of Puckett’s resignation. “She’s a good judge. ... I would say that he wanted to make sure his daughter kept her judgeship. A father’s going do that.”
The appearance of a blatant quid-pro-quo in Puckett’s resignation provoked an uproar in Richmond, which was already reeling over former governor Bob McDonnell’s trial on corruption charges. Federal officials launched an inquiry. Puckett ultimately was forced to relinquish claim to his tobacco commission sinecure. But his resignation stood, and the damage was done to the Democrats and the 400,000 Virginians who, unlike their low-income counterparts in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Maryland, are still going without health coverage that would’ve been paid for almost entirely by the federal government.
Then, just recently, came additional revelations of l’affaire Puckett from one of the Washington Post’s dogged Virginia state government reporters, Laura Vozzella. She reported that McAuliffe’s chief of staff, Paul Reagan, had, like any employer battling to keep a star worker, tried to keep Puckett in the fold by countering with an offer of his own. “I know there was a lot of frustration with your daughter, not, you know, getting a judgeship or something,” Reagan said in a voice mail left for Puckett. “If there’s something that we can do for her, I mean, you know, we have a couple of big agencies here that we still need agency heads. We could potentially, potentially, subject to approval of the governor and so forth, you know, the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy could be available.”
And also pitching in was Mark Warner, a longtime friend of Puckett’s. Vozzella reported that “three days before the state senator’s resignation became official, Warner called Puckett’s son, Joseph, and discussed an appointment to the federal bench as well as a potential corporate position for Martha Puckett Ketron, according to Joseph Puckett’s attorney, Charles E. ‘Chuck’ James Jr. of Williams Mullen. James said that Warner suggested a post for Ketron at CGI, at high-tech firm Warner helped lure to Southwest Virginia when he was governor a decade ago.”
So, in short, Virginia’s top Democrats, panicking about the potential loss of Senate control and the fate of the governor’s legislative priority—not to mention the fate of 400,000 poor Virginians’ health and financial well-being—tried to fight fire with fire, and favor with favor, and lost. For all the uproar, it’s doubtful that any of what transpired around Puckett was illegal—all things considered, it can be chalked up to the seamier side of politics, and no more. But even if the overtures crossed some line, there is no disputing which overture came first, what the original sin of this saga was.
Yet that hasn’t stopped Republicans from trying to attack Warner for his reactive response to the Republicans’ own offer to Puckett. Gillespie harped on the revelations during his debate against Warner, and launched an ad attacking Warner on the matter, which he later had to revise because it overstated Warner’s efforts to the point where they did sound illegal. Meanwhile, Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel, a close ally of Gillespie’s K Street crowd, touted this new scandal as reason why GOP donors should stick with Gillespie in the home stretch:
This past week Mr. Warner’s image began to crumble. In June, Democratic state Sen. Phil Puckett abruptly resigned, throwing control to Republicans and derailing Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe ’s top priority, which is to expand Virginia’s Medicaid program. Within a week, federal investigators were probing whether Republicans had dangled a job for Mr. Puckett in return for his resignation.
That investigation is now producing quite different details. The Washington Post last week revealed it was Mr. Warner who called the Puckett family to discuss the possibility of a federal judgeship or corporate gig for Mr. Puckett’s daughter, as a means of getting him to stay in the Senate.
Note the misleading wording: Strassel does her best to make it sound as if it was Warner instead of the Republicans, not in addition to them, who had made an overture to Puckett—when in fact there is nothing in the new revelations that rebuts the initial reports that Republicans made the first offer to him. But of course this elision is necessary for Strassel to even attempt to spin this for the Republicans. Even the Journal’s conservative readers would ridicule her chutzpah otherwise, if she let on that the quid-pro-quo’ing had in fact started with her side.
Finally, there are the valiant efforts by Brad Dayspring of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP's campaign arm. Monday night, Dayspring tweeted out this:
NYT report: "Mark Warner is the culinary Cousteau for senators hoping to find new hip places" in DC. Not mentioned: embroiled in scandal.— Brad Dayspring (@BDayspring) October 21, 2014
To which the New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman responded, with a link to the original story on the Republicans’ deal with Puckett:
Weisman’s right, of course. But that hasn’t kept Gillespie et al from trying. In this cynical, haphazard, and substance-less election season, anything goes.