With a special investigator soon to be appointed by the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, the ethics cloud hovering over Rep. Michele Bachmann could quickly become a major problem for the Tea Party hero, experts tell Salon.
“This is very serious," said Craig Holman, a government ethics lobbyist at liberal-leaning watchdog group Public Citizen. "It’s not Watergate, or at least not yet, but these are a series of allegations that are each serious on their own, and when you put them all together, this could be a career ender for Michele Bachmann."
Ken Boehm, chairman of the conservative-leaning National Legal and Policy Center, told Salon that we should wait to see what investigators find -- indeed, no wrongdoing has been reported so far -- though he acknowledged the escalating scrutiny could be a major headache for the congresswoman down the line.
The Iowa investigation, looking into whether the campaign improperly paid a state senator, is just one of at least three different probes examining a range of allegations related to Bachmann's failed presidential campaign, including charges that she improperly used campaign funds to promote her book, that her campaign "launder[ed]" money, and that one of her staffers stole an email list from a home-school organization.
Two former staffers, including her former chief of staff, have agreed to testify against Bachmann, which Holman said is “very unusual" and something that will push investigators at the Federal Elections Commission and the Office of Congressional Ethics, each of which reportedly has its own investigations into the campaign, to take the matter seriously.
OCE can't issue penalties itself, but instead refers matters to the House Ethics Committee, where the range of potential punishments is huge, from a letter of censure to expulsion from the House, though the committee has a reputation for partisan gridlock and could easily sidestep the matter. FEC violations, meanwhile, come with civil fines, but the commission is even more notoriously ineffectual than the Ethics Committee.
The real punishment, even if no wrongdoing is found, would likely instead come in November of next year, when Bachmann will face off against Democrat Jim Graves, whom she beat by less than 4,500 votes in 2012. The race presents real challenges for Graves, as turnout will be lower without a presidential race, and the district remains the most conservative in Minnesota.
But Professor Larry Jacobs, who runs the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at University of Minnesota, says the ethics questions are a "big problem" for Bachmann. "There are a lot of things a conviction politician like Michele Bachmann can withstand, and being attacked by Democrats is definitely one of them. But the kind of krypton that will disable her is having her convictions challenged," he told Salon.
Some supporters will no doubt stick by her, and refuse to believe the veracity of any charges (see: Glenn Beck), but others may not. “These charges are particularly damaging because they cut to the core of her greatest strength among her followers, which is her authenticity. This cloud of questions has now enveloped her in the ‘usual politics’ label and what I’ve heard from her supporters -- and this is obviously not a scientific sample -- is, ‘she’s just like the rest of them,’” Jacobs added.
For his part, Graves isn't ready to make an issue of the ethics questions -- yet. "We aren't going to make any assumptions," he told Salon. "We're confident in the bipartisan process responsible for investigating this matter. The truth will set you free -- or otherwise. I'm just disappointed at how long this issue has had to go on, creating another distraction from the real needs and concerns of Minnesotans."
Bachmann's core supporters will probably never vote for a Democrat, but they might stay home, which could be trouble in a low-turnout race like midterms generally are. Still, Jacobs guesses that Bachmann hangs on for another cycle, but barely. And if the ethics questions get worse, that prediction might change.