Plagiarized speeches. Unpaid tax returns. Inflammatory rhetoric captured in an old newspaper clipping.
For decades, political operatives have embarrassed and discredited their opponents through the dark arts known as opposition research, the kind of provocative dirt-digging deemed essential to any winning campaign.
But as the 2018 midterm election begins, strategists from both parties are confronting a new, Donald Trump-affected reality: Revelations that would have once infuriated the public, even scuttled a campaign, now risk being greeted with indifferent shrugs.
“The bar for disqualifying candidates is almost invisible at this point, it’s so high,” said Tim Miller, once the executive director to America Rising, a GOP opposition research group. “Especially given the fact Donald Trump is president and he committed at least two dozen gaffes and actions that would have crushed any other candidate.”
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“Your old-school gotcha hypocrisy hits on a Senate or House candidate that might have made it onto CNN in 2010,” he added, “isn’t going to break through anymore.”
Pinpointing just how much the public attitude toward scandal has changed is, of course, impossible. Even in a political culture perpetually seized by outrage — led by a president who only a year ago was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault and whose campaign is now under a grand jury investigation — an ill-timed gaffe or startling revelation can still sink some candidacies and end some careers.
But Miller and others veteran operatives point to one recent example as proof of just how much things have changed. In 2014, Sen. John Walsh of Montana was seeking a new term in office when news broke that eventually forced him to quit his race.
Walsh’s mistake? He plagiarized his master’s thesis at the Army War College.
Miller called the scandal “quaint.” One former Republican elected official, reflecting on Walsh’s controversy, called the outrage “insane.”
“I don’t want to make the American electorate sound dumb, but there’s a genuine question I would ask, ‘How many people even know what the hell a thesis is?’” said Trey Radel, a former GOP congressman from Florida.
Radel would know about the kind of scandals that force lawmakers from office: In 2014, he resigned after pleading guilty to cocaine possession. He had been caught months earlier buying the drug from an undercover police officer, in a scandal the caused a brief sensation in Washington and Florida.
Even in three years, Radel said he thinks voters’ views of scandals have changed markedly. Part of the shift is Trump’s influence, he said, and part of that is an increasingly fed-up public that cares only if a politician can do the job and vote the right way — not whether he or she maintains a sterling reputation.
“People just don’t give a damn about a stupid audio recording that was caught on tape or something someone wrote in the 1990s, or the college thesis of a liberal Democrat who pushed for socialism,” he said. “Nobody cares.”
Radel wouldn’t say if the changing climate means that, if he had been caught with cocaine now, he would have been able to stay in office. (The ex-congressman emphasized that resigning was the right decision for him and his family, regardless.) But he says if other scandal-plagued candidates asked him for advice, he knows what he’d say.
“If I were consulting a candidate, I would tell them to take on whatever they’ve done head on and attack it,” Radel said. “You find a way to use a weakness as a strength. And I think Trump did that in multiple ways.”
A politician taking on and surviving a scandal is one thing, but many Democratic operatives say they are even struggling to generate controversy in the first place. One Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to discuss political strategy, said reporters in many states have begun ignoring information — like on old votes — that once would have sparked at least a small controversy.
Another Democrat said the drama at the White House has made it difficult to convince reporters their time is better spent elsewhere.
“While that doesn’t make property taxes not matter, they’re not novel,” said the operative. “You’ve seen this happen before. It just doesn’t rise to the same standard.
“Operationally,” he added, “it’s much harder to pitch that sorta stuff.”
Democrats and Republicans alike see recent instances where politicians have gotten away with things that would once have been disqualifying. It partially explains, for example, how the party could kick Todd Akin to the curb — he of “legitimate rape” infamy in 2012 — while this year embracing Roy Moore, an Alabama special election Senate candidate who was twice removed from the state Supreme Court for misconduct and has a long history of derogatory remarks about Muslims and gay men and women.
It might also explain the rationale behind a candidacy from someone such as former Rep. Michael Grimm, a convicted felon who decided to seek a new stint in his Staten Island congressional seat. Even before he was forced out of office, Grimm stirred controversy when in 2014 he was caught on tape threatening to break a reporter in half “like a boy.”
Of course, recent events have demonstrated that no matter the shifting standards, damaging information can still knock politicians out of office. Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, was forced to resign in September after a series of reports about his use of private flights.
Last week, Republican Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania opted for early retirement after reports that the congressman, who opposes abortion-rights, once urged a woman he had had an affair with to consider an abortion. He was also beset with stories about the mistreatment of his congressional staff.
Not everyone agrees that politicians face a different standard than before. They say that even though the rules didn’t apply to Trump, that doesn’t mean they’ve vanished.
“There are two sets of rules now,” said Kevin McLaughlin, a GOP strategist. “The biggest mistake people are making, particularly candidates, is they think that the same rules apply to them that apply to Donald Trump. And that’s just not the case.”
McLaughlin, a senior official at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2014, even disputes that what ended Walsh’s candidacy then would be greeted with yawns today. It might have just been plagiarism, he said, but it discredited the military credentials of a candidate who made his service in the armed forces central to his campaign.
Things that speak to the heart of a politician’s candidacy will always be deadly.
“I hope Democrats think there is nothing that is disqualifying anymore,” he said. “I certainly hope so. That would be an incredibly shortsighted way to look at a campaign.”