US & World

Maxine Waters ethics questions unlikely to sway voters in November

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) speaks during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) speaks during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee
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Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters has asked the House ethics committee to schedule a hearing before the November midterm elections. Waters is alleged to have used her political clout for personal gain. The 10-term congresswoman says she’s done nothing wrong - and wants to clear her name.

Just how do ethics scandals affect political races?

In the midterm elections four years ago, Democrats needed 15 seats to recapture control of Congress. They picked up 30.

Political science professor Jeff Mondak says Karl Rove made the argument in 2006 that the outcome of the election wasn’t about the Bush administration and the Iraq War; it was about the Republicans being involved in scandal. "And he was close to half right."

Mondak is a political scientist at the University of Illinois. He says 13 of those lost GOP seats were because the members were involved in various scandals. Mondak, who edited a book on why the Republicans lost Congress, can even quantify the effect. He says scandals cost incumbents at least 5 percentage points – enough to make a difference in a close race.

But political science professor Marc Sandelow says five points means little in a “safe” district, like the South Los Angeles district of Congresswoman Maxine Waters. He says, "Maxine Waters wins with 80 percent of the vote every time she runs."

Sandalow teaches at the University of California, District of Columbia Center. He says Waters has "been a figure from that neighborhood since 1976 when she was in the State Assembly. I don’t think anything that could happen in Washington, D.C. is going to affect, at least a majority of the voters from the district, re-electing her."

Similarly, Democrat Charles Rangel is expected to win re-election easily in his New York district – despite a suggestion from President Obama that he “end his career with dignity.” But Marc Sandalow says the ethics problems of these two political veterans present a problem for other Democrats.

"Having a high profile public trial six weeks before Election Day doesn’t look good when Nancy Pelosi, campaigning for speaker a few years ago, promised to drain the swamp and run the most ethical Congress in history."

The National Republican Congressional Committee has already jumped on the issue, saying “a host of Democrat ethics issues” will be debated in the court of public opinion. The GOP says voters will “see this as yet another example of the arrogance of power.”

But the University of Illinois’ Jeff Mondak says his study of the 2006 midterm elections shows there was no spillover effect. "Republicans as a whole," he says, "were not hurt by the allegations of scandal of those particular members who were involved in them." And he doubts the ethics investigations into Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel will affect other Democrats this campaign.

But the University of California’s Marc Sandalow says they could erode Democratic voter turnout. "It definitely does something to depress Democrats," he says, "and maybe make them a little less excited about showing up at the polls when the headlines are screaming that two of their elder statesmen are in trouble."

Ethics investigations also play into the general public perception that Washington is a hotbed of corruption. The Rasmussen poll released last week shows that nearly three-quarters of Americans have an unfavorable view of members of Congress.