Democrats are partying like it’s 2006, which was the last time they snatched the majority from House Republicans. But August doesn’t tell you much about upcoming elections. Actually, September is when the cruel electoral winds shake loose some House seats.
I remember sitting in the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue in New York City in August 2006. Rahm Emanuel chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that cycle, and I occasionally joined him for meetings with New York donors. Emanuel would look those donors in the eyes and tell them a Democratic majority was likely, but not until 2008. He wasn’t alone in believing a majority would take two cycles. The unwritten strategy at the time was to get within the 10 yards in the 2006 midterm elections and spike the ball in the 2008 presidential cycle.
Then came the September scandals. Former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) dominated the news cycle after allegations broke that he sent sexually suggestive emails to teenage boys in the House page program. The scandal widened as it became clear Republican leaders were aware of the emails and tepidly responded. Foley resigned by the end of the month, but the scandal rippled towards November.In early October, the political prognosticator Stuart Rothenberg wrote that the Foley scandal may have “set the stage for a blowout of cosmic proportions” in the midterm elections. Within a week of the scandal, Democratic candidates ads ran attacking the failure of Republican leadership to respond to Foley’s alleged behavior. Even Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who chaired the National Republican Campaign Committee, had to batten down the hatches in his normally safe district in Buffalo.
Meanwhile, in suburban Philadelphia, another scandal bubbled in September as reports emerged that Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) transferred $70,000 in campaign funds to pay legal expenses. It turned out that federal prosecutors were investigating whether Weldon had improperly helped foreign companies that paid nearly $1 million to the lobbying firm of his daughter. The race between Weldon and Democrat Joe Sestak remained a dead heat until October, when FBI agents raided the home of his daughter. The weeks before an election are, after all, a particularly inconvenient time for headlines containing the words “FBI raid” and “influence peddling.” Weldon lost, and Democrats won a majority they didn’t believe probable less than three months earlier.
Which brings us back to Buffalo, where my now friend Tom Reynolds saw his formidable lead succumb to the “September shrink” in 2006 as a result of the Foley scandal. Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) of Buffalo announced last week that he was effectively ending his reelection bid after being charged with insider trading, which is also not a good word combination prior to an election. Collins was the first House member to endorse Donald Trump. In 2016, he received 67 percent of the vote.
Now, take your scandal scorecard and follow along. The scandal-plagued Collins succeeded Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul, who succeeded the scandal-plagued Republican Rep. Chris Lee, who resigned from Congress in 2011, after we learned that he emailed a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he solicited on Craigslist. Buffalo has become the barometer of whether scandal beats a district’s political gravity.
Right now, there’s a political version of the “Buffalo Shuffle” as national and local Republicans scramble to figure out how legally to get Collins off multiple ballot lines. One way is for Collins to run for a different political office, like a county clerkship. When a powerful and safe Republican congressman from Buffalo is looking for a county clerkship to run for in August, it tells you it’s going to be a rough September.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is a novelist whose latest book is “Big Guns.” Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael and on Facebook @RepSteveIsrael.