The Week in Politics: A Governor's Alleged Affair, Trump Troubles and the State of Redistricting

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | March 25, 2016
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, left, has been accused of having an affair with one of his top advisers, Rebekah Mason, right. (AP/Brynn Anderson)

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Governor's Alleged Affair Highlights How the Media Have Changed

Over the years, it's become more difficult for politicians to survive sex scandals and remain in office. One reason is that, given today's media environment, salacious news travels faster.

On Wednesday, Alabama GOP Gov. Robert Bentley held a press conference to deny he'd had an affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, a top adviser whose husband also works for his administration.

"I am truly sorry and I accept full responsibility," Bentley said. "I want everyone to know, though, that I have never had a physical affair with Mrs. Mason."

Bentley called the news conference to respond to allegations made earlier in the day by the state's Secretary of Law Enforcement, Spencer Collier, who was fired on Tuesday. Collier claimed to have seen texts and heard evidence of an affair. He also said Bentley fired him for refusing to help cover up the affair and for not lying in an affidavit regarding a corruption case against state House Speaker Mike Hubbard.

It was sensational news. Even before Bentley held his afternoon news conference, The Washington Post ran a column entitled, "The 4 Most Eyebrow-Raising Parts of the Crazy Affair Allegation Against Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley." Other outlets also ran stories on their websites, and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow devoted half of her hour-long program to the story.

This wasn't the first time news about Bentley's possible dalliance spread far and wide. Rumors have been swirling about a possible affair since the governor's wife filed for divorce last summer. In September, Gawker ran a story with the headline, "Alabama Governor Robert Bentley Won't Say Whether He (Expletive) a Staffer."

There have always been instances of politicians straying, but in the age of the Internet and social media, the discretion traditional media outlets once exercised is a thing of the past. Twenty years ago, for example, The Washington Post and Time both sat on a story that presidential candidate Bob Dole had had an affair, judging it not relevant to his campaign. The story broke in the National Enquirer but gained little traction.

That wouldn't be the case today.

For Down-Ballot Republicans, Trump's a Tricky Choice

Democrats aren't waiting to see whether or not Donald Trump will win the GOP's presidential nomination. They're already tying other Republican candidates to him. It will be a persistent theme all year.

In New Hampshire, for example, Democratic officials held an event this week unveiling a yard sign highlighting the "Trump-Sununu" ticket, seeking to connect GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu to the party frontrunner. Sununu has said he'll back the party's nominee for president, even if it's Trump.

"Some Republicans are lining up to denounce Trump because they know how devastating his selection would be for down-ballot Republicans," said Ray Buckley, the Democratic chair. "But not Chris Sununu."

Sununu's own father, however, a former GOP governor himself, expressed concerns earlier about fallout from a Trump ticket.

"Here in New Hampshire, if Donald Trump is the nominee, we will not get a Republican governor," John Sununu told Bloomberg TV. "We will lose the New Hampshire state Senate, and we could lose the New Hampshire state House."

Such worries are a major motivation behind the #NeverTrump effort, which is seeking to coalesce support behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

"CO legislator told me today if @tedcruz leads ticket we can win back CO House," tweeted Ron Nehring, the Cruz campaign's spokesman and a former California GOP chair, on Tuesday. "With Trump we lose both chambers to the Dems. #onlycruz."

North Carolina GOP Chair Censured and Locked Out of Office, Email

North Carolina GOP Gov. Pat McCrory was formally nominated for re-election in a primary last week. He'll face a tough race against Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, so the last thing McCrory needs is division within his own ranks. But that's what he's got.

On Sunday, the state GOP's Central Committee voted to censure the party's chairman, Hasan Harnett, for a variety of alleged infractions, including posting inappropriate statements online, directing staff to perform duties in violation of party rules and creating "an uncertain and disrespectful atmosphere" that led to staff turnover.

He has been blocked from using his party email account and banned from party headquarters. The state executive committee might vote to remove Harnett from office altogether next month.

"We need to get this matter resolved quickly and get to the business of winning elections for conservatives in November," said Larry Shaheen, a GOP consultant in Charlotte.

Harnett, the state GOP's first African-American chair, won the post last year with support from grassroots activists but not McCrory or other elected officials in the state. He vowed this week to stay in the job.

"There is a movement from the grassroots," Harnett told the Charlotte Observer. "And anybody outside the four walls of the GOP headquarters stands with the chairman."

Courts Hear Cases Against Redistricting Maps in Several States

This was a busy week for redistricting challenges, ranging from a ruling regarding a small county in Florida all the way up to arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Wisconsin, a three-judge panel began hearing arguments on Wednesday in a closely watched case about partisan gerrymandering. The Supreme Court has found that redistricting maps that are drawn with the intent of heavily favoring one party over the other could be constitutional -- but they've never agreed on a way to measure exactly what constitutes an unacceptable partisan gerrymander.

The Wisconsin case, which challenges the state Assembly map, seeks to set such a standard. Plaintiffs are using a theory called the efficiency gap, which measures the extent to which votes are wasted within districts that have been packed with supporters of one party. By this measure, partisan votes that total more than a simple majority are wasted. If a district gives 75 percent of its votes to a Democratic candidate, for instance, a third of those votes were wasted.

According to the plaintiffs, Wisconsin Republicans wasted lots of Democratic votes in this manner when they drew up the Assembly maps.

"When 53 percent of citizens vote for one party, but that party gets 39 percent of the legislative seats, something is askew," said Chris Ahmuty, the executive director of ACLU of Wisconsin, referring to the 2014 election results.

There's no telling whether the three-judge panel will be sympathetic to this line of argument. But critics of partisan gerrymandering are hoping that the Supreme Court will choose to revisit this question for the first time in more than a decade.

In Jefferson County, Fla., a potentially precedent-setting decision was reached in a redistricting case involving the county commission and school board districts. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that the maps were wrong to count nonvoting prison inmates as nearly half the residents of one district.

"To treat the inmates the same as actual constituents makes no sense under any theory of one person, one vote, and indeed under any theory of representative government," Walker wrote. "Furthermore, such treatment greatly dilutes the voting and representational strength of denizens in the other districts."

It's believed to be the first such ruling in a "prison gerrymandering" case. Walker will sit as part of a three-judge panel that will start hearing arguments Friday in a Florida redistricting case that involves claims of racial and prison gerrymandering in a congressional district.

When it comes to Virginia's maps, the Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday regarding racial gerrymandering. The state has abandoned defense of its 2012 congressional map, which was thrown out and redrawn by a lower court last year. A tie in the case would uphold the lower court's ruling and keep the new map in place.

And in North Carolina, a court decision involving a racial gerrymandering complaint against the state's congressional map is imminent and will be followed by a trial similarly challenging the state's legislative maps starting on April 11.

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