2022 midterms

Midterm Candidates’ Skeletons Are Coming Out of the Closet

Maybe Ohio congressional candidate R.J. Majewski shouldn’t have placed so much emphasis on his military record. Photo: John Seewer/AP/Shutterstock

For the most part, the winners and losers of this year’s races for Congress, governorships, and other high offices will be determined by national trends and the political characteristics of various jurisdictions. Sure, occasionally you get clunker candidates (e.g., Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano) who just aren’t very good at campaigning. And sometimes one candidate has an overwhelming financial advantage, though in competitive races the national party committees and other “outside” spenders often make up the difference.

But as the general-election campaign heats up, there’s another factor that, on occasion, can be crucial: skeletons in candidates’ closets, as revealed by “opposition research” or media inquiries. Cook Political Report’s House expert David Wasserman calls this part of the election cycle “Oppo Dump O’Clock,” referring to the moment when low-level staffers or consultants tasked with digging up dirt, perhaps months ago, see the fruits of their labors in negative ads and nasty headlines. Wasserman’s prime example is a Republican congressional candidate challenging veteran Democrat Marcy Kaptur in a district now leaning Republican:

A damning Associated Press story contradicted GOP nominee J.R. Majewski’s claim he had served in combat in Afghanistan, citing military records showing that he instead served “a six-month stint helping to load planes at an air base in Qatar, a safe distance from the fighting.” Additional AP reporting this week found that Majewski was demoted by the Air Force after being stopped for a DUI on base in Japan in 2001, likely preventing him from re-enlisting.

Up until now, Majewski was mostly known for his QAnon sympathies, for his presence in Washington on January 6, and for being a self-styled MAGA rapper. He won his primary in an upset after presenting himself as an “America First Veteran.” That’s true, but it’s generally a bad idea to run on your military record if it’s not exactly impressive. Now Majewski is suggesting he had some sort of secret role in the military that he cannot talk about as a matter of national security and attacking the “liberal media” for doing him in. But the National Republican Campaign Committee has apparently seen enough and has canceled a big ad buy on the candidate’s behalf.

A less damaged but still wounded GOP candidate in a competitive district is John Gibbs, a Trump-backed politician who defeated pro-impeachment Republican incumbent Peter Meijer in an August primary in the Third Congressional District of Michigan. Gibbs isn’t the only candidate whose past views on issues of the day are embarrassing, but in terms of alienating broad swathes of the electorate, his youthful indiscretions may take the cake, as CNN reported:

As a student at Stanford University in the early 2000s, Gibbs founded a self-described “think tank” called the Society for the Critique of Feminism that argued women did not “posess (sic) the characteristics necessary to govern,” and said men were smarter than women because they are more likely to “think logically about broad and abstract ideas in order to deduce a suitable conclusion, without relying upon emotional reasoning.”

Hosted on Gibbs’ personal page at Stanford in 2000 and 2001, the Society for the Critique of Feminism argued for a patriarchal society run by men, calling it “the best model for the continued success of a society.”

The worst thing about this sort of past position is that a candidate has to get out there and rebut it:

Anne Marie Schieber, a spokesperson for Gibbs’ campaign told CNN in a statement that Gibbs believed women should be allowed to vote and work.

He was just “owning the libs,” it appears. Desperate spin aside, Gibbs can’t deny he said what he said or did what he did.

Some “skeletons,” however, are only apparent retrospectively and with a microscope. Consider the current situation of Maine Democratic congressman Jared Golden, running for a third term in a quite competitive district. In 2020, he received a booming $667 campaign contribution from Californian Julie Packard, a member of a famously wealthy family deeply involved in civic causes. Packard is also executive director of an organization called Seafood Watch, based at the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, and that’s where Golden’s problems began.

As I can tell you as a Monterey local, the Seafood Watch exhibit at the aquarium is a very cool interactive feature through which you can find out about the relative impact on sustainability of consuming various denizens of the deep. It offers regularly updated take-home cards with advisories on various kinds of seafood by source, with justifications for warnings against eating particular tasty critters.

Turns out Maine lobster have shown up on the Seafood Watch advisories as a meal to “avoid” on the grounds that lobster pots used to snare the crustaceans are a threat to the endangered right whale. Based on this judgment, some food-service companies removed Maine lobster from their offerings. That sofa-cushion money Packard sent to Golden in 2020 has suddenly been weaponized by a 2022 opponent, as Politico reported:

The prickly dispute boiled over this week when one of Golden’s opponents, former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin, broadsided the incumbent at a recent debate over refusing to return the donation.

“During the debate … Jared Golden refused to return a donation by Julie Packard, the multimillionaire heiress director of anti-lobster group Seafood Watch,” Poliquin’s spokesperson said in a statement from his campaign. “If Jared Golden will not return Seafood Watch’s donation, then that tells Maine lobstermen all they need to know about him.”

I guess Golden could have tried to explain that Seafood Watch does not exist strictly in order to torment “Maine lobstermen,” but instead, he tried some inspired jiujitsu:

“I’m not going to give the money back, this woman’s organization is part of this network of nonprofits that are funding these lawsuits against our lobster fishermen,” Golden told POLITICO. “I’ll take every penny she gives me and I’ll give every penny of it to our Maine lobster fisheries legal defense fund.”

Whoever turned up the Packard donation while engaged in the tedious chore of looking through Golden’s past donor lists and understood its potential significance must be mighty proud. And a host of other candidates around the country are probably wondering what unexpected skeletons lurk in their closets as November draws nigh and small problems start to become big.

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Midterm Candidates’ Skeletons Are Coming Out of the Closet