This year, boasting about securing earmarks and federal spending for one’s district would seem like a pretty inept campaign strategy for any congressman. For a nine-term Democratic incumbent who was recently caught dishing out thousands in scholarships to staffers, friends, and family members, it might seem like outright political suicide.
But that is exactly what Rep. Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.) is boasting about these days. At a September 13 luncheon for the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County, Bishop spoke candidly about how he views his line of work:
“Politics is all about who gets what, when and how,” Bishop said. “I am fortunate and blessed to have learned over the past 18 years and have come to be in a position to make things happen for the people of the 2nd District of Georgia.”
He has certainly been making things happen for members of his own family. Earlier this month, Bishop became the most recent member of the Congressional Black Caucus to come under fire for questionable behavior when it was revealed that he had awarded scholarship money from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) to his stepdaughter and his wife’s niece in 2003 and 2005. Traditionally, the foundation’s members are allotted $10,000 annually to award to students in their districts, with individual scholarships typically ranging from $1,000 to $2,000.
When the scandal broke, Bishop swiftly announced that he would reimburse the CBCF a total of $6,350 for the scholarships, but refused to admit any wrongdoing. Bishop’s campaign has repeatedly pointed out that at the time the scholarships were awarded, there were no rules prohibiting the scholarships from going to family members. According to the CBCF, such restrictions weren’t put in place until 2008.
It’s hard to say which is more galling — the fact that the CBCF didn’t think it necessary to explicitly forbid such blatant nepotism, or that Bishop apparently needed a written rule to dissuade him.
This isn’t the first time Bishop has faced allegations of nepotism, either. Last year, he was accused of steering federal funds to a Muscogee County youth group where his stepdaughter and her husband worked, though no formal charges were ever filed.
Bishop certainly knows a thing or two about bringing home the bacon. His positions on the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees for agriculture, defense, and military have allowed him to steer millions in federal funding to his district. This line has played well with voters in the past. He had better hope it works for him again, because this year Bishop finds himself with little else to run on.
Georgia’s 2nd Congressional District is close to 50 percent African-American. The district voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but is by no means liberal. George W. Bush narrowly won in 2004, and Cook Political Report rates it as a D+1.
Black voters are the core of Bishop’s base, but they typically turn out in much smaller numbers in a non-presidential year — they comprised 46 percent of the vote in 2008, but only 38 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, white conservatives who may have supported Bishop in years past are furious over his votes for the stimulus and health-care bills, as well as the attempt to implement cap-and-trade. Days before the scholarship scandal broke, Larry J. Sabato’s portal Crystal Ball moved Bishop’s seat from “Safe Democrat” to “Likely Democrat.”
“Given the Republican wave that seems to be brewing, and the potential for a greatly diminished minority turnout in 2010, [Bishop] suddenly is in a fight for his political life,” wrote Crystal Ball’s House-race editor Isaac Wood. “The timing [of the scandal] really couldn’t be worse,” Wood said.
The GOP is hoping to capitalize on the situation by throwing its full support behind Bishop’s opponent, state Rep. Mike Keown, whom the National Republican Congressional Committee recently upgraded to “Young Guns” status. Polling before the scandal had Keown behind by six points, 44 percent to 50 percent, a pretty strong showing against an entrenched incumbent like Bishop. Keown has proven to be a particularly effective fundraiser. As of June 30, he was leading in cash on hand.
Since news of the scandal broke, Keown’s campaign has been firing on all cylinders. “Two months ago, we were about a half lap behind,” campaign manager Andrew O’Shea said. “Now we’re about neck and neck, [Bishop] can see Mike coming.”
One GOP aide said the party likes its chances. Bishop hasn’t faced a serious challenger in almost 20 years, and it shows. Bishop has been “totally tone deaf” on the campaign trail, as his recent speech “defending earmarks” shows, the aide said. “You have a highly polarized electorate this year, and [Bishop] has lost his ability to win crossover votes,” the aide said. “We just need a little push to get us over the top.”
Bishop’s response has been to downplay any mention of the scholarship scandal. “I would think that given the importance of the issues facing our nation that my opponent could come up with something better than these distractions,” Bishop told supporters at a campaign event.
But the issue isn’t going away anytime soon. The NRCC recently raised questions about an additional seven CBCF scholarships, the recipients of which had close ties to Bishop. Another GOP spokesman promised “more ethical baggage” would come to light between now and November. If Bishop is serious about saving his seat, he might start by rethinking his definition of politics.
— Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.