House Republicans pin hopes on prosecutors-turned-candidates
Friday, June 4, 2010; 3:17 PM
NBC may have canceled "Law & Order," but House Republicans are trying to create their own version of the long-running drama this fall.
From Little Rock to Scranton, Republicans are fielding congressional candidates whose most prominent credential is prosecuting criminals, particularly a trio of former U.S. attorneys. Running in districts held by Democrats, the GOP candidates are betting that their prosecutions in cases ranging from illegal immigration to local corruption will trump questions about their connections to the still unpopular Bush White House.
"You're wearing the white hat, protecting people and seeing justice done," Patrick Meehan, the former U.S. attorney for southeastern Pennsylvania, said in explaining the appeal of former federal prosecutors.
On May 18, Meehan was one of three former U.S. attorneys to win the Republican nomination for a House seat; a fourth lost in her primary that same day. That follows on the heels of former U.S. attorney Christopher Christie's November victory in the New Jersey governor's race.
It's no coincidence that so many prosecutors are running for Congress. A year ago, as Republicans charted a course back to political relevance, they turned candidate recruitment away from the usual prospects -- state legislators and local city council members. Instead, aides said, Rep. Pete Sessions (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, targeted what he called "community leaders," ranging from physicians to auto dealers to professional sports stars. Former U.S. attorneys were among that group. So along came Meehan; as well as Thomas Marino, the former U.S. attorney for northeastern Pennsylvania; and Timothy Griffin, the former interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock.
To be sure, U.S. attorney posts have long been political launching pads. The inspiration for Adam Schiff, the original district attorney on "Law & Order," was Robert Morgenthau, the veteran Manhattan district attorney who retired last year. Appointed by the Kennedy administration as U.S. attorney in 1961, Morgenthau ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1962 and then won the D.A. job in 1975. Another New York-based U.S. attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, used that perch to claim the mayor's mansion and then ran unsuccessfully in the 2008 White House race.
Former U.S. attorneys, however, have not been natural fits as congressmen. In a study of U.S. attorneys in the 1960s and 1970s, James Eisenstein, a Penn State University legal history professor, found that less than a handful of the nearly 200 federal prosecutors in that 13-year period went on to win election to Congress while nine went on to become governors. Over the past 15 years, just four former U.S. attorneys have served in Congress.
Independent analysts suggest that former U.S. attorneys -- as well as local prosecutors such as Sean Duffy, the Ashland County district attorney running for a House seat in northern Wisconsin -- are increasingly favored by Washington-based strategists seeking candidates with prominent backgrounds and scant voting records. "A law-and-order background is always a good credential, no matter what and when. Also, both parties are increasingly looking for candidates with fewer obvious liabilities. If you've been a U.S. attorney or a law-and-order guy, you don't have any of those vulnerabilities," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
Their potential Achilles' heels are the connections required to land the job in the first place, something that Democrats are focusing in on like a laser against these prosecutors-turned-candidates. They are derisively called "Bush retreads" by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, because they all won their appointments after being nominated by then-President George W. Bush.
"Middle-class families will reject these Washington-insider Republican candidates for representing a return to the failed Bush agenda, and they won't be able to hide from their dirty records," Ryan Rudominer, DCCC spokesman, said.
Griffin, a former staffer for a House committee, the Republican National Committee and the Bush White House, was named interim U.S. attorney in 2006. At the time, the Justice Department had fired eight of the incumbent prosecutors in a push to replace them with newer, younger U.S. attorneys. Griffin, now 41, was a protege of Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff. An e-mail from a top Justice official said Griffin was getting the post because it "was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.," referencing Rove and then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers.
Griffin is touting his military service, as well as his law career, in his campaign. His Web site shows a picture of him in his Army uniform -- he serves in the reserves as a judge advocate general -- and notes his tour in Iraq as well as his time running a Little Rock law firm. With veteran Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ariz.) retiring, a pair of Democrats are still locked in a fight for the Tuesday primary to determine who will take on Griffin in the fall.
Marino is running against second-term Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.). Marino, who resigned as U.S. attorney in late 2007, has come under fire for accepting a job with a local businessman who was under federal investigation for political contributions connected to efforts to win a casino license.
But these candidates also have cases to brag about. Meehan led the prosecution of one of the most powerful state senators in Harrisburg and oversaw a highly sensitive corruption probe of Philadelphia's City Hall. He also points to the recovery of $2.5 billion for the federal government in health-care fraud cases. "In a job like this, there's the capacity to be exposed to many significant issues," he said.
Still, former U.S. attorneys face the same kinds of challenges that any congressional hopeful might.
Meehan is regarded as the most promising candidate, having raised more than $1.2 million already, but he is running in the toughest of the three districts where a U.S. attorney is the nominee. President Obama won 56 percent of the vote in that district west of Philadelphia. Marino sits in a far more conservative congressional district, but he has had trouble galvanizing his campaign. He had to fight to win the May18 primary and has collected less than $150,000 in contributions.
Then there's Mary Beth Buchanan, a former U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh. She raised less than $135,000 and was routed in the GOP primary.
"Candidates and campaigns matter," Rothenberg said. "You can't just think that because you have a name and the folks in Washington like you, you're a lock. You have to run the campaign."