A Brief Electoral History of Recently Indicted Congressmen

by Nathan L. Gonzales July 31, 2015 · 10:32 AM EDT

It might be easy to scoff at Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania for talking about his re-election bid on the same day he faced a 29-count indictment on corruption charges, but the most recent members of the House to be indicted held their own at the ballot box, at least initially. The last two members of the House to be indicted won their next election.

After New York Republican Rep. Michael G. Grimm was indicted in 2014, I wrote about how it reminded me of one of my worst mistakes as a political handicapper and how I didn’t want to repeat it. Apparently, I’m a slow learner.

Back in 2006, I assumed that after the FBI found $90,000 cash in Democratic Rep. William Jefferson’s freezer he would lose re-election. That turned out not to be true. He won the runoff election that cycle, was indicted six months later, and still won the 2008 Democratic primary and runoff elections. He lost the general election by less than 3 points.

But even with the Jefferson situation in mind, there was evidence that Grimm’s electoral position was more precarious.

Grimm had narrowly won re-election, 48 percent to 45 percent, two years before in a competitive 11th District anchored by Staten Island, and it appeared that the congressman didn’t have a lot of room for error in his re-election effort in 2014 with a 19-count indictment hanging over him. And winning a third term seemed like a particularly tough task without the help from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which shied away from backing a tarnished member. We moved New York’s 11th District from Leans Republican to Leans Democratic after the indictment.

But over the course of the campaign, Grimm’s strength (and the Democratic nominee’s weakness) became more and more apparent. By Election Day, we had the race rated back in the Republican’s favor. He won re-election by a dozen points but resigned from office this year after being convicted.

After Jefferson but before Grimm, Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona was indicted in 2008, but he had already announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election.

This cycle, it’s not even clear that Fattah will draw a credible opponent. My Roll Call colleague Emily Cahn wrote about potential successors who would likely be interested if Fattah resigned, but not challenge the congressman in a primary.

Even though Jefferson lost his race at the same time President Barack Obama received 75 percent of the vote, it is highly unlikely that Fattah would suffer the same fate. Obama received 90 percent of the vote in 2012 in Fattah’s 2nd District of Pennsylvania.

While seeing a congressman’s name in the headlines with the word “indictment” is startling, Jefferson and Grimm are stark reminders that alleged criminal activity does not necessarily portend an immediate election loss.