The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The FBI just gave down-ballot Republicans something to grab on to

Cue happy photo of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Republicans have viewed with skepticism the FBI's decision that Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server didn't warrant a criminal case. From their perspective, Friday is an "I-told-you-so" moment that couldn't have come at a better time politically, especially for down-ballot Republicans.

Eleven days before the election, the FBI is going to take "investigative steps" on whether additional classified material crossed the server Clinton used exclusively as secretary of state.

We have no idea what they'll find or how long this investigation will last. The FBI has already concluded Clinton was "extremely careless" in sending and receiving classified email on her server, but they didn't find evidence she intended to do, or even knew she was doing, anything criminal.

They may not need to this time around. The mere optics for the average voter hearing "FBI," "investigation" and "Clinton emails" so close to the election is not good for Clinton. Which means it's very helpful for vulnerable House and Senate Republicans.

They've spent this whole campaign on the hook for their nominee. But now they can say that at least he hasn't been caught up in FBI investigations twice now in an election year.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), one of the most vulnerable incumbents this cycle, tried to turn the tables minutes after the FBI news broke:

And the House Republicans' campaign arm sent out a release in no fewer than 35 congressional races asking that question: "Will Brad Ashford continue to stand by and support Hillary Clinton now that the FBI has reopened the investigation against her? Or will he finally go against his party and their scandal-ridden Presidential candidate?"

It also doesn't help Democrats that these emails were uncovered in the FBI's investigation into the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, which broadens the story to a wider audience by, frankly, making it more surreal and just plain odd.

Leaning heavily on the latest FBI news is a much better political bet on Republicans' part than it was the last time around.

While Americans have been resoundingly negative about the way both Clinton and the FBI have handled the email issue (in July, 56 percent of Americans told Washington Post-ABC News pollsters they disapproved of FBI Director James B. Comey’s recommendation that Clinton should not be charged with a crime), evidence suggests it hasn't affected their vote. Most voters told also told Post-ABC pollsters that the outcome of the investigation did not matter in their vote, and Clinton didn't see a dip in her poll numbers for it.

For argument's sake, let's say this all comes to nothing, and Clinton were to be elected president. There is still a way Hill Republicans can use the mere existence of Friday's bombshell to make a President Clinton's life a living hell. They were already planning "years" worth of their own investigations into her emails, hoping to find an elusive smoking gun that the FBI may have missed.

Such "years" of long investigation had the potential to backfire politically by making House Republicans come off as overzealous, especially given the FBI had closed its case, and there's not a lot Congress can do to change the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute Clinton.

But the fact the FBI decided it needed to take more "investigative steps" after it thought the case was closed could lend an air of legitimacy to whatever future investigations Hill Republicans may have planned.

And it could help Republicans revive a case against Clinton that could reverberate Nov. 8 and beyond. By how much is to be determined, but it's certainly useful news for Hill Republicans, no matter who wins the White House in 11 days.