Historically speaking, campaigning while out on bail on felony charges has proven to be a surefire way to lose an election, with some notable exceptions.
But this campaign cycle, felony indictments appeared little more damaging than TV attack ads as three Republican candidates facing an assortment of fraud charges squeaked past their Democratic opponents to hang onto their seats Tuesday night.
They include Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, indicted on federal charges of wire fraud and accusations he funded a luxurious lifestyle with campaign donations; Representative Chris Collins, Republican of New York, indicted on federal insider trading charges; and Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, indicted on felony securities fraud charges in state court, accused of lying to friends and potential investors about his financial stake in a tech company.
All ran in solid red territory. Though each candidate won their race by single-digit margins as of early Wednesday, their victories highlight the polarizing political climate in which criminal investigations into elected officials are frequently met with more sympathy among supporters than scorn.
All three candidates have denied wrongdoing and characterized the indictments against them as politically motivated ‘‘witch hunts,’’ as their Democratic opponents have lunged at every opportunity to remind voters that jail time could be in their futures.
‘‘Republicans, Democrats, and independents know that it’s time to put country before party and reject a congressman who’s out on bail,’’ Collins’s opponent Nate McMurray said in an Oct. 29 statement.
‘‘If Paxton can’t follow the law, how can he enforce it?’’ read one ad from Paxton’s challenger, Justin Nelson.
None of it worked.
While it’s neither unprecedented nor unlawful for indicted candidates to win seats in Congress or state office, it’s surely a rare feat.
Michael Grimm, former Republican congressman from New York, achieved it in 2014 after he won his reelection bid despite facing federal indictment for tax fraud related to a restaurant he owned, where authorities alleged he paid undocumented immigrants off the books. One month later, he pleaded guilty to a single tax evasion count — but at first he refused to resign. When a judge sentenced him to eight months in prison in 2015, she told him his ‘‘moral compass, Mr. Grimm, needs some reorientation.’’ Grimm ultimately resigned from Congress.
Before that there was Floyd Flake, the former Democratic congressman, also from New York, who with his wife was indicted for allegedly embezzling funds from the African Methodist Episcopal Church where he was a pastor. He won another term in 1990 despite the charges, which were later dropped.
William Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana, is perhaps an honorary member of the club: In 2006, he won a bid for reelection just several months after federal investigators found $90,000 in bribe money stuffed in cardboard food packages inside his freezer. He was indicted in 2007 while in office. In the 2008 campaign, Republican Joseph Cao defeated him to become the first non-Democrat to take the seat in that district since 1890. Jefferson was convicted and served a prison sentence.
That’s been the more typical consequence for most indicted candidates over the last several decades, a noncomprehensive list of whom was compiled recently in the Buffalo News, the leading paper in Collins’s district.
But not so for this year’s group.
Post-indictment campaign tactics for both Hunter and Collins turned particularly vile after both candidates released attack ads targeting their opponents, which were quickly denounced as racist.
Hunter, who was accused in August of siphoning campaign funds to pay for everything from tequila shots to trips to Italy and SeaWorld, released an ad painting Amma Campa-Najjar, a Palestinian Mexican American raised Christian by his mother in San Diego, as a terrorist sympathizer and ‘‘security risk’’ seeking to ‘‘infiltrate Congress’’ with support from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Collins, meanwhile, released an ad featuring challenger Nate McMurray’s wife, a naturalized US citizen from Korea, who was seen speaking Korean while the ad suggested McMurray wants ‘‘fewer jobs for us . . . more jobs for China and Korea.’’ Later, Kim Jon-Un, the North Korean dictator, makes a cameo while the ad claims McMurray ‘‘helped American companies hire foreign workers.’’