Despite the drip-drip-drip of seamy revelations about his hyperactive sexting life, Anthony Weiner may yet hang on to his House seat.
That is, if his Democratic colleagues don’t push him off the political plank in the coming weeks.
From Radar Online running the X-rated text messages the married New York congressman allegedly exchanged with a Las Vegas blackjack dealer to TMZ quoting a note in which Weiner reportedly told porn star Ginger Lee to lie—not to mention a Texas single mother selling his racy photos to ABC News—Weiner’s humiliation has kicked into overdrive. Any notion that his tearful and apologetic news conference Monday would put this story to rest has evaporated.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are fuming that Weiner, who’s always been something of a loner, has stopped their momentum cold. The party was getting traction running against Paul Ryan’s unpopular Medicare plan, and now the talk is of phone sex and naked photos rather than the politics of health care. While no Democrat has joined House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in calling for Weiner to quit, almost no one has risen to his defense.
“The crass politics is, you shut this down as fast as possible,” says Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s former campaign manager. “The easiest way to get this out of the headlines and stop the flood of pictures is for him to step down immediately. If you took a private poll, everyone would just prefer that he disappear.”
But, says Trippi, Weiner “should be able to make his case to his constituents and they should be the ones to decide whether he stays or goes.”
Weiner’s Brooklyn and Queens district, where he was first elected in 1998, is reliably Democratic, though a GOP challenger won 41 percent of the vote last year. The district would probably cut him some slack, especially as he apparently never met any of the six women he says he flirted with online.
“The election is a long time away,” says Republican strategist Rich Galen. “His constituents may say he did what he did but he’s been a good boy for the last year and a half.”
Weiner could face a tough primary challenge. And Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic national committeeman from New York, says the congressman could be redistricted out of his job, as the state will forfeit two House seats under the latest Census count. “He’s never had the most popular relations with his colleagues,” Zimmerman says. “I don’t see the political support to preserve his congressional seat.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hardly sounded sympathetic Tuesday. “I know Congressman Weiner,” he told reporters. “I wish I could defend him but I can’t.”
By swiftly calling for a House ethics investigation, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi distanced her party from the lurid spectacle. A senior Democratic aide, describing Pelosi and the party leadership as “furious” with Weiner both for his conduct and his week of televised denials, says her decision “builds pressure on him to go.”
Paradoxically, though, the move also buys Weiner some time. As long as he wasn’t flirting with “a 13-year-old boy or girl,” says Galen, the ethics panel probably won’t damage him. “Rank-and-file Democrats don’t have to make a decision and can hide behind it. She got everyone else off the hook.”
But Zimmerman sees the investigation as a minefield: “The issue’s going to be, were any of these women underage? Did he use any government equipment in the process? Does he lie to the ethics committee?” And if Weiner falls on any count, says Zimmerman, “game over. I don’t think Democrats want this lingering over them.”
If the flood of sexual details continues unabated, the pain threshold may prove to be too high for Weiner himself. And an X factor is whether his wife, Huma Abedin—like her employer, Hillary Clinton—continues to stand by her man.
The TMZ account underscores why Weiner’s self-inflicted wounds could be more serious than exchanging photos and hot talk with distant women. On June 1, the gossip site reports, Weiner offered Ginger Lee advice by email on what to say about their online relationship: “The key is to have a short, thought-out statement that tackles the top line questions and then refer people back to it. Have a couple of iterations of: ‘This is silly. Like so many others, I follow Rep. Weiner on Twitter. I don’t know him and have never met him. He briefly followed me and sent me a [direct message] saying thank you for the follow. That’s it.’”
Lisa Weiss, the Nevada casino worker, says Weiner called her from his office last year “and we proceeded to talk dirty for at least 30 minutes.” By Washington’s narrow standards, the steamy talk would matter less than the use of a federal phone.
Still, a referral to the notoriously slow ethics committee freezes the clock. After John Ensign admitted having an affair with the wife of a top aide, Doug Hampton—and was accused of improperly aiding Hampton’s lobbying efforts—the Senate ethics panel took on the case in October 2009. By the time the Nevada Republican resigned last month, the committee still hadn’t reported its findings.
The GOP, to be sure, is enjoying Weiner’s travails far more than it did Ensign’s—or, for that matter, those of Chris Lee, the upstate New York congressman who resigned after sending a shirtless photo to a woman on Craigslist. Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, says “it’s time for Democratic leadership to explain why Congressman Weiner’s actions never aroused any suspicion, and why they rushed to his defense when so many Americans were shocked and confused by his bizarre and disturbing behavior.”
The political reaction in New York, where Charlie Rangel was easily reelected last year despite being found guilty of 11 House ethics violations, has been decidedly mixed.
Jay Jacobs, chairman of the state Democratic Party, says Weiner’s fate is tied to the House investigation: “He’s the only person who knows what the outcome of that inquiry will be. If he knows it will not turn out in his favor, I would advise him to consider that seriously and consider his options.” As if to send a sharp signal, Jacobs adds: “I would say to you there would not be a great amount of tolerance for anything else.”
But New York media consultant Jimmy Siegel says Weiner can ride out the storm: “The fact that the sins he’s committed may rank a little lower than some of the other ones we’ve seen recently—Vitter, Schwarzenegger, too many to name—helps.”
Yet Siegel’s comments serve as a reminder that sex scandals aren’t always fatal. David Vitter’s Louisiana constituents voted to reelect him to the Senate after he turned up on the D.C. madam’s phone list. Bill Clinton left office with high poll numbers after lying about the Monica Lewinsky mess because many Americans cared far less about it than the media did. Going further back, Gerry Studds’ Massachusetts constituents reelected him in 1984 after the House censured him for a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male page.
In the end, conduct that might not fly in Butte could draw a fugghedaboudit in Brooklyn. The question is whether a badly damaged Anthony Weiner can make it to the next election.
The Daily Beast’s David Graham and Patricia Murphy contributed to this report.