Is it getting easier for members of Congress to escape controversies over sex and race without political repercussions?
I've argued that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) seems home free now that he has the support of the president, the vice president and the top three in GOP House leadership over allegations that Jordan must have known about rampant sexual misconduct in the wrestling program at Ohio State University while he was a coach.
And last week House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said he stands by Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.), even though Lewis lamented not being able to call women “sluts” and compared people on welfare to “parasites” when he was a radio jockey several years ago. Some of those comments were already public; others, CNN has been reporting on lately.
“He was a shock jock; that was his job at the time,” Ryan said Thursday in response to a reporter's question about Lewis. “I've seen some of these comments. And I obviously don't support these comments. But the Jason Lewis I know here, who is a congressman, is an extremely conscientious man, a very hard-working, a very effective member of Congress who has been nothing but an exemplary congressman who represents his constituents well.”
Compare the support Jordan and Lewis have received to that for the nine members of Congress in both parties who have lost their jobs over sex-related scandals in the past year. A number of those were pushed out by party leaders like Ryan.
It's possible Ryan and GOP leaders believe Jordan when he says he's innocent, and that they think Lewis is a good congressman who has been different since his radio jockey days. Both men are in the headlines for things that happened years before they came to Congress, and the bipartisan House Ethics Committee has not investigated either of them for wrongdoing.
But it still wasn’t a given that Ryan would defend two of the latest Republican lawmakers to face scandal, and twice he has.
What could be his calculations in standing by lawmakers accused of behaving badly? Without pretending to be inside his head, let's walk through the broader political climate to assess what might be playing into this.
Lewis is in a competitive reelection: In a year when Republicans could very well lose the majority of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2011, every race matters. Especially Lewis's, since the path to Democrats' majority goes through seats like his. He narrowly won election in 2016 in his swing district outside the Twin Cities, and it ranks in the top 10 of The Fix's races most likely to flip parties. In purely political terms, Lewis would be someone GOP leaders desperately want to avoid throwing under the bus.
It's easier to hope these headlines fade rather than risk making something out of it: In the #MeToo era, when lawmakers leave over scandal, the politics to replace them has often been unpredictable.
Former GOP congressman Tim Murphy was accused of encouraging a woman with whom he was having an affair to get an abortion. He got forced out of Congress, and a Democrat won the special election in the spring to replace him — Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) — even though President Trump had won Murphy's district in 2016 by 20 points.
In the autumn, Republican congressional leaders urged Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore to drop out of a special election when he was accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with teenagers decades ago. Moore refused, and he became the first Republican to lose a Senate race in Alabama in two decades.
Former Democratic senator Al Franken left his job last year over groping and sexual misconduct allegations. While his replacement, interim Sen. Tina Smith (D), looks strong to win the November special election to officially replace Franken, the outcome of the race is not a given.
Lewis's allies point out that he won in 2016 with much of his controversial radio comments already public to voters. And the bipartisan House Ethics Committee has seen no reason to investigate what he said. Read between the lines of that argument, and you can also assume that they're calculating this will blow over.
Jordan doesn't have a competitive race, but he is running to replace Ryan as speaker of the House next year. It's possible that the accusations against him could seep into other races, like the competitive open Ohio governor's race, or an upcoming special congressional election in August that is turning surprisingly competitive for Democrats. The Republican in that race, Troy Balderson, refused to say whether he would support Jordan for speaker, and the Democrat, Danny O'Connor, immediately attacked Balderson for not distancing himself from Jordan's accusations.
Trump has set the gold standard for defending men behaving badly: At this point, Trump defends his allies almost reflexively, even when the rest of his party won't (see Roy Moore in Alabama). Trump is also facing accusations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen women and allegations he had affairs with two women who also allege they were paid to stay quiet during the campaign.
Ryan and other GOP leaders have contradicted Trump when they felt they needed to. But Trump's behavior at the top of the party sets an ethos that could affect how other Republicans make tough decisions about standing by their colleagues.
Jordan and Lewis are Republican men: And that counts for something. As Rutgers University professor Kelly Dittmar pointed out to me last week, research suggests that society — and especially Republican voters — give male lawmakers more benefit of the doubt that they're innocent or changed people. As I wrote:
Research analyzed by gender politics scholar Melissa Deckman from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that Republican voters are more likely to give an accused candidate the benefit of the doubt than Democratic voters. PRRI found that the majority of voters who think that sexual harassment claims are often a misunderstanding back the Republican voter (63 percent).