Why plagiarism destroyed John Walsh, but Scott DesJarlais may survive a sex scandal


Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.). (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak,File)

Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) plagiarized hefty chunks of a paper he submitted for his master's degree. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) had extramarital affairs with patients and was exposed as a hypocrite on abortion.

Which is worse?

We'll leave the moral debate to you. But politically, there's no doubt that Walsh's sin was much more damaging. He was forced to end his campaign on Thursday -- the same day DesJarlais went before Republican primary voters and may just survive by the skin of his teeth. Even if he doesn't -- the vote is still being tallied, with DesJarlais up 35 votes -- the fact that he nearly won would still be telling.

So, why are the two things so different? Because specifics matter. In this case, timing worked against Walsh and in favor of DesJarlais. So did the kinds of campaigns they ran, and the backdrop of their races.

Let's take a closer look at each reason in more detail:

Timing

The New York Times reported on Walsh's plagiarism allegations 16 days ago. While he submitted his paper in 2007, the fact that it surfaced now -- less than four months before the election -- was huge. If this comes up last summer, maybe things are different. It blows up two weeks before the election, and maybe he survives. But this is a crucial time in the midterms. Donors and outside groups are deciding whether to wade into key races like Montana. The media and voters are starting to tune in more. In short, the timing could not have been worse.

For DesJarlais, it couldn't have been better. The revelation that DeJarlais, a physician, had affairs with patients, and encouraged his ex-wife to get abortions even though he opposes them publicly, came in 2012. That's an eternity ago in politics. Voters have short memories and for DesJarlais, that's good news.

When your message is destroyed, so are you

A big reason why Walsh's plagiarism was so brutal: He did it at a military institution. Walsh, an Iraq War veteran and former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, made his military record and character a central part of his pitch to voters. He was appointed to the Senate in February, so he didn't have much of a legislative platform to run on, making his military resume even more crucial. Republicans were already trying to take some of the sheen off his service by pointing to an Army Inspector General's report that said he improperly solicited other National Guard leaders to join an association. Add a plagiarized paper at the U.S. Army War College, and -- well, game over.

Sure, the abortion revelation instantly revealed DesJarlais was saying one thing in public and doing another in private. And hypocrisy can be deadly in politics. But DesJarlais was not just running on social issues. Take a look at this ad where his campaign touts his record on other matters like spending and debt -- things that fire up conservatives. He also went after his opponent Jim Tracy on Common Core and taxes, other red meat conservative issues that distracted from his personal woes.

The apology

As if the plagiarism story weren't bad enough, Walsh and his campaign made things worse with a bungled response, as Aaron Blake noted. They made a factual error, initially claiming he survived "hundreds of IED explosions." They mentioned he suffered PTSD, but insisted it was not an excuse for his actions. (Which raises the question, why bring it up?) And while he admitted to his mistakes, he said they were not intentional. Given the evidence, accepting that would have been tough for many people.

DesJarlais's apology went over better. He said God had "forgiven me" and asked "fellow Christians" to do the same. In an area with plenty of religious conservatives, that was an effective message. "I think part of it is he has has asked for forgiveness. And conservative evangelicals believe in forgiveness," said John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist. Hey, it worked for Mark Sanford.

The power of incumbency

DesJarlais was elected in 2010. He was elected again in 2012, even after his scandal blew up on the eve of the election. It's tough to unseat incumbents who have won before.

Walsh was appointed to the Senate in February. He was never voted into the job. He didn't have the same kind of incumbency to lean on. Voters had no existing investment in him.

The stakes

Were there Republicans who preferred to see DesJarlais go away and not reflect on the rest of the GOP brand? Yes. But ultimately, he isn't part of GOP leadership. He is one of 435 House members running in a deeply conservative district where he doesn't really risk handing the seat to Democrats by sticking around. So there was little incentive for party leaders to go to war to push him aside and draw even more attention to the story.

By contrast, Walsh was running in one of the biggest races in the battle for the for the Senate majority. And it wasn't just the risk involved in his own contest: if he stayed in the race, he risked spoiling the chances of downballot Democrats. There was also a time crunch. He needed to get out by Monday, or he'd be stuck on the ballot. There was little justification for Walsh to stay on, unless he wanted to potentially ruin things for his party in multiple races.

And so, Walsh heads home at year's end after a brief stay in Congress. And DesJarlais? He may just be getting started.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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