When does a contribution go bad?


This year has seen a whole sale rejection of campaign contributions provided by certain undesirables to campaign committees. Last December it was Mitchell Wade and Brent Wilkes, in January it was Jack Abramoff, Mike Scanlon, and the various Indian tribes they swindled, and then came Abramoff associates Neil Volz and Tony Rudy. The guilty pleas and investigations into these top donors was the equivalent of a political tsunami forcing congressmen and Senators to donate the dirty money to charity. The past few weeks, however, have brought some different stories about giving back campaign contributions. It isn’t always clear when a campaign should reject a contribution or by what measures it should take to ensure the political safety of said contribution.

Perhaps the most widely covered story was the New York Post article about the money donated to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) by Peter Cook, the husband of supermodel Christie Brinkley, “who humiliated” Brinkley “by bedding a doe-eyed teen in the Hamptons”. According to the article, Clinton, “who champions women’s causes and children’s issues,” would not comment on returning the money Cook has donated to her. It truly does not seem realistic that a candidate for office should have to return campaign contributions from an adulterer. While adultery is clearly wrong this kind of scrutiny would probably invalidate millions in campaign contributions and if applied as a criteria for elective office would remove countless members of Congress and the Senate and remove from the running any number of Presidential aspirants (just look at the ’08 Republican frontrunners).

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has a different kind of problem with campaign contributors, one that isn’t the focus of a popular ABC television show as Sen. Clinton’s contribution conundrum. You see Tancredo, a Know-Nothing demagogue from Littleton, Colorado, received a shade of $8,000 from members of known white supremacist and white power radical organizations. Racism is certainly a touchier subject than adultery. Based on Tancredo’s rhetoric, and his base of support (“Tancredo, he’s pretty good. I would probably vote for him for President,” David Duke.), it doesn’t seem that revelations like these are going to hurt him politically. If this was John Kerry, or someone not appealing to the Know-Nothing’s of the country, it would probably be best to return the money donated to you by the white supremacists.

Two candidates for the Senate have faced a slightly more ambiguous choice about campaign contributions received from perceived controversial figures. Pennsylvania Senate hopeful Bob Casey (D) is running to unseat Sen. Rick Santorum (R). Today the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Casey is giving the contribution he received from Savage Love writer Dan Savage to an anti-Santorum group because “‘higher ups’ in the campaign decided that the contribution could cause Casey more trouble than it was worth”. A few years ago Savage held a contest to coin a new meaning for the word Santorum. The one that was eventually settled on was probably too profane for the Casey campaign and they decided that rather than open up a small space for criticism they would hedge their bets and give the money to an organization that could, in the end, help the campaign, and achieve what Savage desired.

In neighboring Maryland, Senate candidate Michael Steele, an African-American Republican, has been arduously trying to court the African-American vote, a solid Democratic constituency. He has run into trouble after receiving campaign contributions from Floyd Brown, the producer of the infamous Willie Horton ad, and Alex Castellanos, the producer of former Sen. Jesse Helms’ “white hands” ad. Steele has defended his decision to accept the money stating, “I appreciate all the support I get from members of my party.” Steele also lashed out stating that he is facing “a racially tinged strategy” to “spin, slander, distort and repeat.” The Washington Post quoted campaign finance expert Paul S. Herrnson as saying, “If candidates take money from people whose opinions fly in the face of the voters they’re courting, they’re taking a risk.”

And that is what it boils down to. That’s why it doesn’t matter that Tom Tancredo gets money from white power radicals or that Hillary Clinton (and every other politician) gets money from an adulterer. It may matter, however, if you accept money from criminals like Abramoff or worse, the antagonists of the constituency you are appealing to.