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In House races, the oddities abound

By Jonathan Weisman

New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 8:48 a.m. HST, Oct 27, 2012

WASHINGTON >> In Michigan, a House candidate confessed that he had difficulty telling whether or not he is, in fact, Santa Claus. In Tennessee, a freshman Republican doctor stands accused of impregnating a patient, then pressuring her to have an abortion.

In Massachusetts, a 16-term Democrat, Rep. John F. Tierney, is imperiled by his in-laws’ offshore gambling racket run out of the Caribbean island of Antigua. And on New York’s Staten Island, Rep.

Michael G. Grimm, a freshman Republican, is favored for re-election despite a federal investigation into campaign finance improprieties involving a rabbi under house arrest in Israel.

The race for control of the House may lack suspense — a continued Republican majority is all but a certainty. But that doesn’t mean it lacks for color, perhaps because the ultimate stakes are so low.

“It’s probably true there are more offbeat stories in the congressional elections than in the past,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a veteran nonpartisan congressional analyst. “The old-fashioned sources of political power have been emasculated by new technology, political action committees, and maybe most of all the partisanship of the districts. If the winner is a foregone conclusion, who cares who the nominee is?”

The twists and bizarre turns of the House campaigns have played out under the radar, while attention fixates on a dead-even presidential contest and a series of hard-fought Senate races that could determine which party controls that chamber next year.

Democratic Reps. Howard L. Berman and Brad Sherman, neither of them known for muscled machismo, were caught on video nearly coming to blows in their almost literally intraparty fight for a new Southern California House district. In South Florida, Rep. David Rivera, a Republican, has charged the media with a vendetta for saying he is under investigation for allegedly orchestrating a secret primary campaign against his Democratic rival. Meantime, the chief witness to the alleged subterfuge has disappeared.

“You have a doctor who slept with a patient, a guy who thinks he’s Santa Claus, two guys under federal investigation. It’s like they’re running for a reality TV show, not the U.S. Congress,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Nowhere is that more true than in the 11th House District of Michigan, just west of Detroit. Rep.

Thaddeus McCotter, a Republican, was just coming off a Quixotic run for president when he discovered that the signatures gathered to put his name back on the ballot for a sixth House term were fraudulent. He retired, leaving the only name on the Republican ballot a reindeer raiser and Santa Claus impersonator named Kerry Bentivolio.

The alarmed Republican Party persuaded a retired state senator and representative, Nancy Cassis, to challenge him as a write-in candidate, but that attracted the attention of a “super PAC” run by a college student in Texas. Cassis fixated on an odd, amateur movie that Bentivolio starred in, “the president Goes to Heaven,” which appeared to accuse President George W. Bush of orchestrating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Her campaign fell well short, and since then, the knocks on the Republican standard-bearer have kept coming. The Detroit Free Press obtained personnel records from his time as a high school English teacher, revealing that he told students they were “just a paycheck to me.” He was reprimanded for grabbing students’ desks, slamming his fists and yelling in their faces.

During a legal altercation over his business, he said in a court deposition, “I have a problem figuring out which one I really am, Santa Claus or Kerry Bentivolio.”

Robert Dindoffer, Bentivolio’s campaign manager, called the accusations of schoolyard bullying “unfounded attacks by the teachers’ union” and made clear that the candidate does indeed believe the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were “perpetrated by radical Islamist terrorists.”

As for Santa Claus: “Kerry Bentivolio runs a Christmas business that brings joy to thousands of people each year. For anyone to attack him for his support of Christmas shows just how out of touch with the mainstream they really are.”

In Tennessee, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a physician and family-values freshman, wrote an “Open Letter to Supporters” this month after the Huffington Post reported a taped phone call in which he appeared to be pressuring a patient he impregnated to get an abortion.

His defense: He was separated from his wife at the time and had an agreement to see other people.

The patient in question had been “briefly treated for a foot injury.” And she wasn’t really pregnant.

When he told her, “You told me you’d have an abortion, and now we’re getting too far along without one,” he was trying to get her to admit she wasn’t really pregnant.

“During the conversation I was incredibly frustrated. As such, I used rather strong rhetoric in hopes that it would lead to her admitting the truth,” he wrote, conceding “it was an imprudent approach.”

Democrats have released a poll showing middle school principal Eric Stewart within 5 points of DesJarlais, and Democrats have been pressing hard. The Tennessee Democratic Party asked this week that the congressman’s 2001 divorce court records be unsealed and castigated state Republicans for standing by DesJarlais.

No matter: Few would consider the seat terribly in danger.

In the past, Rothenberg said, “Most of the time if you get somebody that damaged, they do the right thing” and bow out. Now, he added, “even damaged candidates can limp through because it’s gotten so partisan.”

The race for Massachusetts’ 6th District is the exception that proves the rule. Tierney’s quest for a ninth term has foundered on an offshore gambling ring that briefly landed his wife, Patrice, in jail for tax fraud. Tierney has not been implicated but has faced questions about what he knew. Unlike in other races, Republicans were ready, with Richard Tisei, a moderate, openly gay candidate who they could present as an acceptable alternative even in a Democratic district.

He is now seen as holding the advantage.

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