BY BEN KAMISAR - 01/25/18 06:00 AM EST
Democrats have their eyes on the swing district held by Rep. Patrick Meehan (R) as the embattled lawmaker struggles to respond to sexual harassment allegations ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Meehan, once a member of the House Ethics Committee, now faces an ethics investigation of his own after The New York Times reported that he used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment complaint levied against him by a former aide.
Meehan has denied the harassment charges and is still running for reelection. But Meehan has hardly put the issue to rest with interviews claiming he and his much-younger aide are “soul mates” and admitting that he lashed out when he found out she had a boyfriend.
Meehan could have faced a difficult reelection even without the harassment allegations. Hillary Clinton won his district during the 2016 presidential election. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is forcing lawmakers to redraw the congressional map, a prospect that could hurt Meehan’s chances.
The accusations have only compounded those concerns, casting doubt on both Meehan’s political future and Republicans’ ability to hold the seat.
“Meehan, in my humble judgment, was not likely to lose reelection even given the Democratic wave,” said Terry Madonna, a political science professor from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
“Now, if he runs and the district lines says the same, all bets are of.”
Meehan broke his silence this week in a series of interviews that saw him both issue a denial and confirm significant portions of the Times’s initial story.
Meehan told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he acted “selfishly” when he found out the aide was dating someone else, admitting that he “developed an affection” for her. And he said he told the aide, “I was a happily married man and I was not interested in a relationship, particularly not any sexual relationship, but we were soul mates.”
Meehan blamed “lashing out” at the staffer about her new romantic partner on the stress surrounding his vote on the GOP plan to repeal ObamaCare, which occurred around the same time. Meehan went on to say he felt the aide had “invited” him to share his feelings.
Republicans in Congress have called for further investigation by the Ethics Committee, expressing concern about the substance of the allegations while not calling for Meehan to quit outright.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has called on Meehan to pay back taxpayers for the settlement, and his office told The Hill in a statement that “any further action or comment will come pending a full and prompt investigation by the Ethics Committee.”
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, echoed that determination in an interview with the Inquirer, adding he wants to wait for the committee process to play out before deciding whether the group will back Meehan’s reelection.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel took a similar stance, putting a decision of support on hold until the Ethics Committee examines the case.
Those responses have drawn strong criticism from Democrats, who say Meehan has made it clear he doesn’t realize the extent of his actions — and see an electoral opening in the growing controversy.
Meehan’s electoral future may have already been in jeopardy — he’s one of the 23 Republicans who represent a district Clinton won in 2016. Four of those lawmakers have already announced plans to retire, while a fifth is running for a Senate seat instead of reelection.
2017 races brought even more warning signs for Meehan, a former U.S. attorney, as Democrats outperformed in county elections in the suburban Philadelphia areas that make up his district.
“His strongest selling point was his upstanding profile, his moral authority. Now all of that has been undermined. So even if he can get out from under this, his fundamental strength is gone,” said Mark Nevins, a veteran Philadelphia Democratic strategist.
“You have to give people a reason not to vote for the incumbent. There weren’t a lot of reasons not to vote for Pat Meehan until now.”
Democrats continue to pressure Meehan to resign, pointing to the fact that sexual harassment allegations against former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and former Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) prompted them to eventually resign. Reps. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), two other lawmakers facing harassment allegations, have announced that they will retire at the end of their terms.
Monday’s decision by the state Supreme Court to strike down Pennsylvania’s congressional map only heightened speculation that Meehan could retire, since redistricting is expected to improve Democratic chances.
Madonna told The Hill that Meehan’s district is one of those “ripe” for redistricting changes to benefit the Democrats.
The Republican state legislature in charge of redrawing the map could leave the seat alone and hope Meehan can pull through. They could sacrifice Meehan’s seat by packing more Democrats into it, chalking up the seat as a loss but hoping to preserve other surrounding districts. Or they could even redistrict Meehan’s home into another Republican district, pressuring him to save face and retire instead of running against a fellow Republican House member.
“There are many possibilities here,” Madonna said. “And an unusual number of them.”
The scandal undoubtedly improves Democratic chances of flipping the seat, but it’s unclear what the Democratic field may look like.
Their top candidate, Daylin Leach, announced in December that he is “taking a step back” from his bid after former staffers accused him of sexual harassment. But now that Meehan faces his own accusations, Nevins said it’s unlikely that Leach can return to the campaign trail.
“If you are running to replace a person tainted by allegations of sexual harassment, you can’t replace him with someone who is carrying the same baggage,” he said.
The party appears to have a new candidate with a strong resume — Shelly Chauncey, a former CIA agent who announced her bid Monday. But Chauncey, who filed her statement of candidacy days before the news about Meehan broke, will have less than four months to get her campaign up and running before the May 15 primary.
Right now, two candidates (not including Leach) have raised more than $100,000 for their bids — former House staffer Daniel Muroff and bioengineer Molly Sheehan.
More Democrats might join the field ahead of the March 7 filing deadline, depending on the developments surrounding Meehan and Leach, as well as the result of the district redrawing.
“Certainly, there’s some Shakespearean tragedy to this whole thing, that all these people folks were putting a lot of confidence in are being brought down by stupidity,” Nevins said, referring to the allegations against Meehan and Leach.
“But the changing of the lines means that none of our assumptions from even four weeks ago are relevant.”