The surprisingly unsurprising news coming out this week regarding perennial Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell has, if nothing else, cleared up one question in definitive fashion: the woman is not a witch. If she were, by this time she obviously would have turned a number of people from both parties — as well as a fair portion of the Biden family — into newts, or at least given them warts.
The headline in question however was more than enough to grab my attention. “Feds Investigating Christine O’Donnell.” “Oh, good Lord!” I thought, “What is it this time?”
This time, as it turns out, is precisely the same as last time. Or perhaps the last ten times. Though the election is now safely tucked nearly two months back in the history books, the charges making the rounds are the same ones we read about from both the 2008 and 2010 races, centering on questions of improper use of campaign funds by the controversial candidate.
The reason this story is questionable in terms of headline value is that the recent developments are precisely what had been promised earlier in the year following a series of campaign related events. Dave Weigel at Slate helpfully provides a timeline for those with short-term memory issues.
On September 9, before the U.S. Senate primary, the Delaware GOP filed a formal complaint with the FEC against O’Donnell’s campaign over suspicions that it was coordinating with the Tea Party Express. After the primary, the Delaware GOP dropped the complaint.
On September 20, after O’Donnell won her primary, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed more complaints with the FEC. They focused on allegations made by David Keegan, formerly a consultant to the O’Donnell campaign (this is how he was described in CREW filings), that O’Donnell had used money from Friends of Christine O’Donnell to pay rent and utility bills at her home.
On December 2, O’Donnell’s final campaign filings with the FEC were released. She had $924,800 left in her campaign account.
It was always going to take some period of time for the wheels of justice to slowly crank through their gears and get an official investigation underway. Are there any merits to the complaints? As usual, we shall have to wait for the full results, but there are valid questions being raised on both sides.
Stacy McCain brings up the obvious — but not necessarily damning — aspects of implied bias on the part of those raising a fuss. Clearly O’Donnell was a burr under the saddle of the state GOP who would have been quite content to run Mike Castle through to a probable victory in the general election, obscure exit polls not withstanding. And the Democrats in the state obviously have a vested interest in not sending her to Washington.
As for CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), it would be rather futile to pretend that they don’t have a very clear track record of left leaning bias, as they rarely — if ever — seem to find time to investigate lapses in responsibility or ethical behavior on the part of Democrats. But, as McCain correctly points out, when you give the appearance of trying to weave them all together into some sort of shadow government conspiracy movement to stifle her, you begin to sound a bit, well… nuts.
But let’s not pretend there’s no reason for an investigation. When you see this much horse manure, you will still occasionally find a pony if you dig deep enough. Unfortunately this investigation is not the type likely to reveal huge, sexy headlines. It will require officials — along with a horde of journalists and bloggers — to dig through all of the candidate’s campaign finance filings, matching up expenses with receipts and explanations for same. More than a few of the reported expenditures were enough to raise eyebrows, particularly when coupled with Ms. O’Donnell’s scanty sources of income over the last few years.
But having spent a fair bit of time myself inside the machinery of congressional level campaigns, not every odd looking expense winds up being a violation. We had one staffer during the last cycle who ran up some startling charges in gas station receipts and meals in a short period of time. While that may sound fishy, it turns out that she was loading up and delivering truckloads of yard signs across eight counties in a district that stretches several hundred miles across winding back roads and hamlets.
Christine O’Donnell will be answering questions about charges such as a delivery from Mattress King. Was it a flagrant expense for personal use, or, as she claims, for a staffer who was sleeping at her house which she was also using as a campaign office? Only time will tell, but campaigns running on a shoe-string budget can and do encounter some oddball expenses. But if the expenses do run afoul of the law, she’s going to have to answer for them in court. We have those laws for a reason.
The practical upshot of all this may render the entire argument moot in terms of her political future, though. As we have pointed out so often here, perception trumps reality in American politics. Ms. O’Donnell came out of the last war tremendously damaged, whether it was from clever traps laid by her opponents, her own failings, or a combination of the two. It’s difficult to imagine this particular phoenix rising from the ashes as a serious contender for any federal office in the future.