We wrote yesterday that Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck was doing a good job in managing the scandal that has emerged surrounding his time as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in the 1990s. But just because Buck is handling the scandal well — we’ve always said it’s best to just come out and do the “mea culpa” from the beginning — that doesn’t mean that this isn’t going to be significantly damaging down the line.
The DSCC sent out a press release today with the title “New Report Raises Serious Questions of Ken Buck’s Record as a Federal Prosecutor.” We’ll let you take a look at their angle of attack first, before we tell you what we think is the bigger problem for Buck:
Surging in the polls against his establishment Republican opponent Jane Norton, Ken Buck may have just hit a major stumbling block thanks to a front-page Denver Post article which calls into question his judgment, ethics, and competence. In 2000, as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Buck refused to prosecute two pawn and gun dealers who he knew through Republican Party circles. The brothers operated a pawnshop which sold cheap handguns, sometimes illegally.
When the U.S. Attorney then decided to go forward with the case, Buck was reprimanded for interfering in the case by privately trashing the government’s felony case to the defense lawyers representing the gun dealers. The U.S. Attorney called Buck’s actions a “reckless disregard of your obligation to keep client information confidential,” and issued Buck a letter of reprimand, which according to sources in the Department of Justice is “unusual.” Buck two months later took a private sector job and was forced into taking ethics classes.
The story doesn’t end there though. According to the Denver Post, one of the brothers has contributed at least $700 to Buck’s Senate campaign.
“Coloradans already knew that extremist Ken Buck was outside the mainstream on a host of issues, but now it appears that his ethics and judgment are in serious jeopardy as well,” said DSCC National Press Secretary Deirdre Murphy. “After being sternly reprimanded for ‘reckless disregard of obligation,’ Ken Buck left his job as a federal prosecutor in a dark ethical cloud. This incident calls into serious question Buck’s ability to serve in public office and maintain any semblance of public trust.”
The DSCC seems to think that the “ethics” angle is the best way to get at Buck here, but that’s not why we think he’s in trouble. We said yesterday that we think this will have little effect on Buck winning the GOP primary, but it could be a major problem in a General Election because it cripples the message that Buck is a “tough on crime” candidate.
The greatest advantage for a candidate like Buck who comes from a law enforcement background is that they can put forth an image of “tough crime fighter” that plays well across every demographic. It’s the same benefit that applies to candidates who served in the military or are former police officers or firefighters; no “messenger” polls higher than a law enforcement figure in a “who do you trust more” kind of question.
Thus, what kills Buck in regards to this scandal is not the ethics question, but the image that he was soft on crime and helped a defense attorney protect criminals. That is what will ultimately be devastating for Buck, because any time he tries to project his “good guy fighting bad guys” image, Democrats can just bring this up and say that he got pushed out of the U.S. Attorney’s office for helping criminals. And they don’t even have to make it a partisan angle, since it was a REPUBLICAN U.S. Attorney (John Suthers) who wrote the letter of reprimand.
Perception is everything in politics, and that’s a really, really easy story to sell in TV ads — a story that completely takes away Buck’s biggest natural advantage over his Democratic opponent.