Imperfect People Get Elected to the Senate

by Nathan L. Gonzales July 16, 2014 · 9:55 AM EDT

In the heat of the campaign, it can be easy to disqualify or dismiss candidates based on unsettling, or sometimes unseemly, revelations. But all you have to do is look at the current lineup of senators to realize that imperfect people win elections.

Connecticut is a great place to start.

In 2010, The New York Times pointed out inconsistencies between Democratic state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s rhetoric and his military service during the Vietnam era. It became a major issue in the campaign, but Blumenthal prevailed, 55 percent to 43 percent, over former wrestling executive Linda McMahon.

Two years later, Democratic Rep. Christopher S. Murphy ran for the Nutmeg State’s other Senate seat. In September of the election year, it came to light that the congressman missed multiple mortgage payments and the bank had started the foreclosure process on his home. Murphy defeated McMahon, 55 percent to 43 percent, that November.

The Connecticut senators are certainly not alone in having facing potentially disastrous headlines during the campaign.

In 2008, comedian and former radio talk show host Al Franken had to answer questions about his involvement in a never-aired “Saturday Night Live” sketch that involved “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl being raped. And he paid $70,000 in back taxes in 17 states during the race. Franken defeated then-Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., with 42 percent and a margin of 312 votes.

In 2012, Democrat Elizabeth Warren faced multiple days of questions about her family’s Native American heritage and whether she used it inappropriately to get a teaching position at Harvard Law School. She defeated Sen. Scott P Brown, R-Mass., 54 percent to 46 percent.

Democratic candidates are not the only ones hit some ruts on the campaign trail.

In 2010, Republican Mark S. Kirk falsely claimed to have received an Intelligence Office of the Year award from the U.S. Navy. The congressman went on to defeat state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic nominee, 48 percent to 46 percent.

Also in 2010, Republican ophthalmologist Rand Paul was accused of being part of a secret society in college that “kidnapped” a girl, tied her up and forced her to smoke marijuana. Paul went on to win the Kentucky Senate race, 56 percent to 44 percent, over Democratic state Attorney General Jack Conway.

In 2007, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter admitted to a “serious sin” when his phone number was disclosed in connection with the so-called D.C. madam and an alleged prostitution ring. The revelation surfaced after the Republican got elected to the Senate in 2004. But he was re-elected subsequently with 57 percent in 2010 over Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon.

With the exception of Kirk, the common theme in these examples is that the candidates who made the news for the wrong reasons largely matched the partisanship of their state. Put another way, Democratic candidates running in Democratic states or Republican candidates running in Republican states can usually afford to make some mistakes and still come out on top.

That’s not great news for a candidate such as Oregon Republican Monica Wehby, who has already been on the defensive about past police reports. But it’s still too early to completely disregard her chances.

Some candidates who are now pinned with unforgivable sins nearly won their races in spite of infamous events during the campaign.

In 2006, GOP Sen. George Allen called a Democratic tracker “macaca” in the Virginia Senate race and became the modern day definition of a campaign gaffe, yet he still nearly won. He lost to Democrat Jim Webb by less than half of 1 percentage point in a terrible year for Republicans.

In Montana last cycle, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg was ridiculed for suing the local fire department after a fire burned some of his property, yet Rehberg lost to incumbent Democrat Jon Tester in a close race.

So before every news event gets declared a game-changer or game-ender, take a deep breath and realize that these campaign hurdles don’t matter, except when they do.