Christine O’Donnell’s Damaging Campaign Funding Controversy: One More Piece of Baggage

As the Tea Party movement continues to pick up steam nationwide, one perceived weak link in the general election is Delaware, where Christine O’Donnell has gotten some unwelcome coverage about her claims to have once dabbled in witchcraft — but, even worse, that she used campaign funds from another campaign in a questionable way. She is enmeshed in a controvery over her use of funds from her previous campaign. And the controversy is growing:

1. A citizens watchdog committee says she is “clearly a criminal” and deserves to be prosecuted:

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, today filed a pair of complaints concerning Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell’s use of more than $20,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses.

“Christine O’Donnell is clearly a criminal, and like any crook she should be prosecuted,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a release. “Ms. O’Donnell has spent years embezzling money from her campaign to cover her personal expenses. Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much these days, but both sides should agree on one point: thieves belong in jail not the United States Senate.”

CREW is requesting that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Delaware open a criminal investigation and asking the Federal Election Commission to audit O’Donnell’s campaign expenses.

The group said its allegations are tied to former O’Donnell aide David Keegan’s affidavit stating O’Donnell, who has run for Senate three times, paid her rent for two months out of campaign funds in 2009 and also used campaign funds for meals and gas. In addition to misappropriation of campaign funds, CREW argues that O’Donnell is guilty of lying about the expenditures and committed tax evasion by not reporting the money as income.

Representatives for O’Donnell, whose financial disclosure form said her earned income between March 2009 and June 2010 was just $5,800, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

2. When a reporter did catch up with O’Donnell for comment, she did allow herself to be questioned — thus setting her apart from Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharon Angle who has virtually fled reporters and Sarah Palin, who avoids them or answers most questions in generalities (unless Sean Hannity is asking softball questions). But the results when she answered CNN’s Gary Tuckman were evasive at best, unpretty at worst:

The outlook:

–Look for O’Donnell to avoid the press even more unless her team comes up with stronger responses. Or to go on Sean Hannity’s cable or radio show to do a p.r. style appearance there.

–Look for the Democrats to hammer away at this controversy. It would have been a topic they would have used in ads anyway, but the fact that CREW — the same group that has gone after Democratic Rep. Charllie Rangel — is saying she is virtually a criminal will give more weight to the charge.

The bottom line: Delaware, a state that sent Joe Biden to the Senate for years, is one state where Democrats face a Tea Party candidate who looks increasingly vulnerable, open to serious charges (use of campaign funds) and comedian punch line ridicule (dabbled in witchcraft).

The comedians have already gone after O’Donnell for her in push-the-envelope jokes about her former campaign against masturbation and the criticism GOP political maven Karl Rove hurled at her (before Rush Limbaugh went ballistic and Rove esssentially walked it back). Here is a sample (WARNING: although these ran on regular broadcast and one cable show, these jokes contain ADULT MATERIAL):

“We need to send a message to Washington, people. This November, I want everyone who believes in basic human rights to touch themselves in the voting booth. I want to say this to Christine O’Donnell. I want you and your followers to know one thing: you’ll take away this penis when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.” —Jimmy Kimmel

“In the Delaware Republican U.S. Senate primary, Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell won a huge upset. Interesting woman, very conservative. She has come out against masturbation. So not only is she against politicians putting their hands in our pockets, she’s against you putting your hands in your own pockets as well.” —Jay Leno

“A lot of people love this woman. In the last 24 hours she’s raised more than $1 million. Which I think is ironic, because she’s against masturbation, but she’s taking money hand over fist.” —Craig Ferguson

“Christine O’Donnell hates masturbation, which is ironic because she owes her nomination to a bunch of jackoffs.” —Bill Maher

“She said that during the primary, ‘I heard the audible voice of God, and he said one word: ‘credibility.’ Which is interesting, because she has no job, there’s a lien placed on her home, and she’s using campaign funds for her living expenses. Her platform is about bringing fiscal responsibility to Washington, but God said ‘credibility.’ ….. —Bill Maher

“Christine O’Donnell won a huge upset, but she’s got some problems. Even though she is a Republican, Karl Rove has accused her of lying. Let me tell you something, when the guy who told 300 million Americans there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq says you’re lying, he knows what he’s talking about.” —Jay Leno

And these:

Jimmy Kimmel: “I have a feeling Christine O’Donnell opposes masturbation the same way Bristol Palin opposes pre-marital sex.”

Jay Leno: “She is against masturbation. Frankly, I don’t think it’s any of her business what I do in the privacy of that voting booth. This is America. Once you close that little curtain, you should be able to pull any lever you want.”

Stephen Colbert (after showing a clip of O’Donnell saying, “The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery, so you can’t masturbate without lust.”): “Thank you madam. Masturbation is adultery. I know this is horrible news for my home audience, many of whom are committing adultery as we speak.”

Delaware Online notes:

On Tuesday, Christine O’Donnell caught the eye of Delaware Republicans in the voting booth and by the next day, her win brought an avalanche of attention from the national media.

By Wednesday night, O’Donnell found herself in the crosshairs of late night television talk show hosts who took full advantage of having a new fresh-faced target on the political landscape.

Some candidates can roll with the punches and the humor works to their advantage.

Some candidates — remember former Vice President Dan Quayle? Yes or no (or as Quayle might say “No. N-o-e-..No..)?

Couple the witch comments, the punchline possibilities over her previous use of masturbation as an issue, and the campaign finance problems and you have a candidate with a lot of baggage. She’ll need to do a lot of work to remove it from the news media, campaign ads and political comedy shows. It’ll trample on her main message and makes her the most vulnerable of the Tea Party candidates this election year.

But does some of the old and new media (for example this post) focus on — and fun in — writing about O’Donnell serve as an example of zeroing in on the micro and ignoring the macro?

Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post:

While it is great, tempting fun to write about Tea Party excess — when, since Cotton Mather was young, has witchcraft been so relevant to the national debate? — the real political story lies elsewhere.

The last few weeks have seen Democratic problems solidify across the country, in ways the Not-So-Great Communicator has been powerless to prevent. The bottom is dropping out of polls for Democratic candidates in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, where battlegrounds threaten to become routs. Senate races in bluish places from Wisconsin to Connecticut to West Virginia are suddenly within Republican reach. Once-shining Democratic Senate prospects such as Brad Ellsworth in Indiana have gone dark on television as party money has fled to more realistic races.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the trend is Ohio, where I caught up by phone with Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman riding his campaign RV to an event in Youngstown. “It feels pretty good,” he said, with an understatement typical of his mild manner. “When I first got in this race, everything was different. In our first poll, in February of last year, we were down 15 points.” A Quinnipiac poll last week had Portman up by 20…

….As media attention has been irresistibly attracted to Christine O’Donnell’s aura of oddness, the main show of American politics is obscured. Ohio’s Democratic candidate for the Senate is now about twice as far behind Portman as O’Donnell is behind her Democratic opponent in Delaware, Chris Coons.

Democratic prospects have broadly soured, and they will be difficult to uncurdle.

More and more it seems as if even a spell can’t save the Democrats — even if voters sweep a flawed candidate like O’Donnell away with her own broom.

UPDATE: Media Matters has a post that notes how O’Donnell has complicated things at Fox News. This weekend she didn’t only cancel appearing on Face the Nation where she would have to have been interviewed by old school reporter Bob Schieffer, but she cancelled an appearance on Fox’s Sunday news program where she would have been interviewed by Chris Wallace. MM writes:

It’s the latest twist that makes events so strange and messy for Fox News, though. Because the fact is, in recent months there had been either a spoken or unspoken campaign agreement in play: Fox News would promote a select number of high-profile Tea Party candidates who in return they would essentially appear on Fox News exclusively, where they would not run the risk of being asked any questions from non-partisan reporters, and where they would be given the chance to fundraise on the air.

Now O’Donnell has mucked up the agreement, apparently unprepared to even appear on Fox News programs. Or more specifically, unprepared to appear on certain Fox News programs. Because don’t forget, after her primary win last week in Delaware, O’Donnell dashed to appear on Hannity. Starring in the Sean Hannity-sponsored primetime pep session, O’Donnell was treated to softball questions as well as a national platform to shill for campaign donations. She also was quick to visit Fox’s morning crew, Fox & Friends, who are hardly known for their hard hitting questioning of GOP candidates. Meaning, O’Donnell wasted no time feeding at the Fox News media trough.

However, faced with the prospect of having to answer questions from Chris Wallace — who unlike Hannity sometimes plays the role of an actual journalist on television –and faced with the prospect of likely being asked about her recently discovered comments about how the proud conservative Christian candidate had once “dabbled in witchcraft,” O’Donnell backed out to ran back to Delaware.

Now Fox News has to explain why O’Donnell was so eager to appear on Hannity’s show, as well as Fox & Friends, but refused to sit down with Wallace. (O’Donnell has also rejected requests from Bill O’Reilly to appear on his show, according to that host.)

The reason: both Wallace and O’Reilly, although they may (and do) have their political preferences, have a journalism background and on occasions both of them have been a)tough questioners b)fair questioners when interviewing those with whom they are perceived to not agree.

Hannity basically offers a political partisan, talking points show — nothing more, nothing less. It’s not softball journalism — it’s unabashed promotion of those with whom he agrees and the trashing of those opposed to those with whom he agrees. You might as well have Michael Steele doing the questioning.

Except Steele goes off message; Hannity doesn’t.

Prediction: O’Donnell with get her political act together after working with advisors and will do a news show…on Fox…or O’Reilly. But don’t expect her to sit down with ABC, NBC, CBS or CNN any time soon.