I’ve been quick to criticize the Austin-American Statesman for silly election stories, and so it’s only fair that I should praise them profusely for today’s top story (behind a paywall, alas) – that the Attorney General paid thousands of dollars in state money to anti-abortion activist Vincent Rue, who was a consultant for the State’s defense of its recent anti-abortion law. Veteran political reporter Chuck Lindell has managed to scoop every other state and national news outlet on this story.
In writing about the secret contract between the A.G. and Mr. Rue, Lindell notes that:
[H]iring Rue as a trial consultant backfired when U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel overturned key parts of the state’s sweeping abortion law on Aug. 29, ruling that Rue’s involvement undermined the credibility of the state’s expert witnesses.
Yeakel also admonished Abbott’s office over its strenuous pretrial fight to withhold Rue’s email exchanges from lawyers for abortion providers, writing that he was “dismayed by the considerable efforts the state took to obscure Rue’s level of involvement with the experts.”
According to Rue’s contract, he was an independent contractor who could be paid no more than $40,000, plus expenses. Other documents show he was paid just over $42,000, but a breakdown of expenses wasn’t available.
Other contract provisions enhanced privacy:
• Rue couldn’t issue press releases or make public announcements about his work.
• The document specifies that Rue had a “confidential relationship” with Abbott’s office in connection with the court case.
• No written reports could be generated without prior approval from the office.
The decision not to release the contract to the Statesman came two weeks after state lawyers argued — unsuccessfully — that emails between Rue and the state’s expert witnesses were protected from disclosure.
Lindell, Chuck, “Greg Abbott’s office reveals contract with abortion opponent” (Austin American-Statesman, November 1, 2014) A1, at p. A7.
In part, the story is about open government records and about Abbott’s efforts to deny access to information about how taxpayer money is spent, and in part, it’s about how ideology and money intersect in the demimonde of the extreme right wing.
And of course, it’s partly a story about an election, about timing and news cycles, and about the potential effect that scandalous news has on Election Day voting (the story came out one day after early voting ended in Texas).
Abbott comes off particularly poorly in the story because of his personal supervision and control of the secret contract, and because his cloak-and-dagger tactics were ultimately disastrously damaging to both his and the State’s credibility in court.
In general, scholarly studies of scandal, corruption, and the effect of political controversy on electoral choice have focused on U.S. Congressional elections, because the number, public visibility, and geographic variety of these elections make them popular fodder for academic scrutiny.
Although the methodology and definitions of what constitutes a “scandal” vary, common themes emerge when looking at the literature on this subject.
The studies consistently find that when compared to non-scandal-ridden candidates;
(1) a candidate’s association with a scandal has a material effect on the election outcome, losing the candidate between 5% and 10% of the vote, especially if the scandal is of a nature that fails to benefit the financial interests of voters, and that
(2) when scandals break, they generally prompt an increase in advertising spending by opponents, with a consequent secondary effect on vote outcomes. Peters, J. and S. Welch, The Effects of Charges of Corruption on Voting Behavior in Congressional Elections, (The American Political Science Review, v. 74, p. 697 (Fall 1980)); Welch, S. and J. Hibbing, The Effects of Charges of Corruption on Voting Behavior in Congressional Elections 1982-1990, (The Journal of Politics, v. 59, p. 229 (1997); Basinger, Scott, Scandals and Congressional Elections in the Post-Watergate Era (Political Research Quarterly, June 2013, v. 66(2) p. 385) (abstract available online at http://prq.sagepub.com/content/66/2/385.full.pdf+html).
However, because this scandal broke after in-person early voting was completed, the effect is muted because roughly half of the votes in this election have already been cast. Additionally, because the story has not broken widely beyond the Statesman yet (in part because the Statesman is justifiably proud of its scoop and hasn’t shared it widely), there are as yet few ripples of public reaction to the story in the instant media Panopticon.
If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that if the Davis campaign puts a targeted ad into wide circulation this weekend (along with widespread social media promotion, push-polls, mentions in public addresses, etc.), that it might peel away a little less than 10% of Abbott’s Election Day vote, cumulating in maybe a 5% hit to Abbott’s vote totals.