Has the GOP handed yet another seat to Democrats on the eve of the election? Kind of looks that way. New York's 20th is represented by Rep. John Sweeney and Sweeney has been confronted with the classic campaign question, "When did you stop beating your wife?"
In this hypothetical situation, a candidate is asked whether he's stopped beating his wife. There is no good answer to that question; no matter what you say, you'll wind up with headlines like, "Candidate Refuses to Answer Wife Beating Charge" or "Candidate Denies Beating Wife." There are a lot of scenarios where this question is handled well -- Sweeney's response isn't one of them.
Sweeney was confronted with a 911 call to police. His wife accused him of 'dragging' and 'knocking' her 'around the house.' When police showed, his wife didn't press charges, but Sweeney had scratches on his face -- clearly, there had been a physical confrontation.
At first, Sweeney's response was that the documented report wasn't true and was a forgery by his opponent Kristen Gillibrand's campaign. The police themselves would neither confirm nor deny the report, saying that it was a matter of privacy -- good on them. No charges, no public record.
But here's where Sweeney's handling of this whole thing went south -- he promised that he and his wife would sign waivers to allow the police to release information. What Sweeney seems to have been unprepared for was a helpful media; the Albany Times-Union, the New York Daily News, and the Associated Press all offered to help him by providing notarized waivers. Sweeney then did a 180 and angrily refused.
Oops! Not so innocent-seeming anymore.
For three days, the media pressed for the documents and for three days Sweeney ignored them. When he didn't ignore them, he said exactly the wrong thing about them. Confronted at a campaign event, he walked away and said, "Talk to my lawyer." He told Times-Union editors, "It is a non-issue, and only you people made it an issue because it's salacious."
Which left a lot of people asking, "Since when is domestic violence a 'non-issue?'" Finally, it cost him the endorsement of a small circulation paper, the Glen Falls Post-Star. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal -- the Post-Star doesn't have a history of making or breaking elections.
Except in this case. The Post-Star had already endorsed Sweeney. But the allegations were serious enough, the denials transparent enough, and the excuses incredible enough that the Post-Star editorial board pulled the endorsement and now backs Gillibrand. "There's a time when you have to say, enough," the editorial board wrote, "Here is one such time."
Now, this almost never happens. In fact, in order to tell you the last time a newspaper rescinded an endorsement, I'd have to google something up -- I can't think of a time it has happened off the top of my head. The little upstate New York paper's endorsement -- and its withdrawal thereof -- became big news. This happens a lot in scandals; one story becomes two. That's why busting scandals is often referred to as 'putting out fires.' Scandals spread if left untended. Unfortunately, both stories mention the originating scandal.
How bad is this? It's pretty much impossible to say this late in the game -- pollsters have packed it up at this point. However, earlier polling had been trending away from Sweeney, leaving him going from a race that was a statistical dead heat to an 11-point deficit -- 53%-42%. Actually, that's a surprising drop from earlier polling and strikes me as likely inaccurate. This last poll was taken before the scandal broke. But even if the race was the statistical deadheat it seems in other polls, it's hard to see how his mishandling of this scandal -- as well as the mishandling of his wife -- will help him any with the undecideds who are key in races this close this late.
The way things are going, you almost wish the elections were next week. How many other GOPers would crash and burn all on their own?
Technorati tags: politics; New York; crime; domestic violence; Kirsten Gillibrand; is John Sweeney's wife beating the final scandal before the elections?
Sources that were not linked in this story: Editor & Publisher, Newsday