'Kissing congressman' Vance McAllister: Will voters forgive transgression?

Allegations that married Rep. Vance McAllister was kissing a staffer coincided with release of a poll that showed many voters are forgiving of adultery. But the particulars of this case might matter.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Rep. Vance McAllister (R) of Louisiana waits to be sworn in at the Capitol in Washington in this 2013 file photo. A Louisiana newspaper published a video that it says shows the congressman kissing a female staffer in his congressional office in Monroe, La.

Rep. Vance McAllister (R) of Louisiana is in a lot of trouble. The married father of five was allegedly caught on surveillance tape kissing a staff member who was not his wife, and that tape has now been leaked to the world at large. Representative McAllister’s office in Washington was locked on Monday following the story’s release and in the afternoon he issued a lengthy apology.

“There is no doubt I’ve fallen short and I’m asking for forgiveness. I’m asking for forgiveness from God, my wife, my kids, my staff, and my constituents who elected me to serve,” said McAllister.

The alleged incident occurred in a district office in Monroe, La. The staff member was identified in the local Ouachita Citizen, which broke the story, as Melissa Peacock. Campaign finance records show that both Ms. Peacock and her husband have been staunch financial supporters of McAllister.

McAllister has only been in office a few months. He won a special election in a heavily Republican district in November to replace Rep. Rodney Alexander (R), who resigned to take a position in the administration of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

McAllister upset a favored candidate with ties to the state GOP establishment to get his seat in Washington, riding an endorsement by the Robertson clan of "Duck Dynasty" fame. His ads emphasized his family and support for traditional values. While conservative, he has taken at least one surprising position: He has come out in favor of expanding Medicaid in the state as provided for by the Affordable Care Act, saying that to do otherwise would just divert some of his constituents’ taxes to other states.

On Tuesday, McAllister’s office announced that Peacock was no longer in his employ, and that the congressman planned to stay in office and run for reelection to a full two-year term in November. Will his apparent transgression hurt him with voters, making this effort an uphill climb?

Possibly not. In polls voters usually say they are less bothered by political extramarital incidents than by out-and-out monetary corruption.

A Quinnipiac survey released Tuesday (good timing) asked respondents to rate a hypothetical congressman who was only described as a married man of middle age who is working to develop policies to help middle-class families.

One group of respondents was told this congressman had been unfaithful to his wife. Of those, 49 percent said they would not, or probably would not, vote for him.

A separate group was told the congressman had created a new well-paid staff position to hire an unqualified family member. Of these voters, a whopping 67 percent said they would not or probably would not cast a ballot for the lawmaker.

“Voters clearly see a difference between personal and official scandals. Committing adultery is far less damaging to a politician than abusing their office,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, in a statement.

Other surveys have found broadly similar results. Last year a BusinessInsider poll found that only 28 percent of respondents would definitely stop supporting a candidate due to adultery.

Does that mean McAllister might win reelection? After all, he’s got a role model of sorts in Congress now. Rep. Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina won a House seat last fall despite the revelation when he was governor that he had a long-running affair with an Argentine woman.

Well, McAllister’s future depends heavily on the circumstances of his particular case, not just general approval or disapproval of political adultery. And right now those circumstances, for him, may be pushing the meter towards “loser.”

Representative Sanford’s transgression took place long prior to his congressional election, for instance. For McAllister, November really isn’t that far away. His emphasis on his family during the campaign could also cause voters to see him a harsher light, due to the apparent hypocrisy involved.

In the Quinnipiac survey, when respondents were told that the congressman facing a sex scandal had promoted family values in his campaign, his vote share cratered, with only 28 percent of voters saying they would continue to support him.

In addition, there is video. That matters in today’s social media age. Voters in his district will see the tape over and over prior to the 2014 election. And right now there is at least one aggrieved party: Peacock’s husband. He’s lashed out, saying his life has been “wrecked” by McAllister, according to CNN.

Voters do make a distinction between private and public behavior. Otherwise Bill Clinton’s presidency might have ended prematurely. Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana remains in office despite his phone number surfacing during investigation of the “DC Madam” prostitution ring. Senator Vitter has even declared that he will run for governor of Louisiana in 2015 to replace the term-limited Jindal.

The question for McAllister will be whether voters make a similar distinction in his case.

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