Despite Troubles, Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Still a Safe Bet for Re-Election

An embattled candidate. A troubled past. A new federal criminal probe. So many times, this combination has cost a Congressman his job come election time.

In the case of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), however, it is likely that even with the latest news that the FBI is investigating him for improperly spending campaign donations, he will remain the Representative for Illinois’ 2nd district.

The FBI is in the final stages of investigating whether Jackson spent money from his campaign coffers to decorate his house, according to a Monday report in the Wall Street Journal.

The report punctuates a very bad year for Jackson, who has been out of the public eye for months after receiving inpatient treatment for bipolar disorder.

Three candidates are looking to unseat Jackson but by every measure — from name recognition to party registration advantage to fundraising — the prospect that one of them would succeed is a long shot.

But that is not stopping them from firing away at Jackson, who has disappeared from public for months and is reportedly convalescing at his Washington, D.C., home.

In interviews, two of his opponents brought up another Monday news story, this one from Gawker, which cited two unnamed sources who saw Jackson drinking at a District bar not far from his home twice last week.

“He can’t be that sick if he was at a bar the other night,” said the Rev. Anthony Williams, who is running as an independent in a write-in bid. It’s his sixth time taking on Jackson; he has run for office on the Green, Libertarian and Republican party lines, as well as bids in the Democratic primary.

“It’s my hope and prayer that the eyes of the voters and citizens are wide open. You can’t keep electing someone you don’t get service out of,” he said.

Marcus Lewis, a mail carrier whose name is on the ballot, is also running as an independent, and he said he thinks Jackson’s illness is nothing more than a “sham.” 

He acknowledged that Jackson’s name recognition is unparalleled but said that if the lawmaker is indicted before the election, the name recognition could work against him.

“Jackson’s name is going to be mud. He’s not going to be elected,” Lewis said. “He needs to step down to get this over with.”

Neither Lewis, who said he would caucus with Democrats, nor Williams have raised enough money to necessitate a Federal Election Commission filing. Lewis estimates that he will spend a total of $3,500 in his campaign.

Jackson, meanwhile, has raised nearly $1 million this cycle, including more than $10,000 in this past quarter, when he was largely out of sight. That’s down from the more than $50,000 he raised in the previous quarter.

Still, Jackson’s third-quarter haul is almost equal to the total fundraising number of his Republican opponent, lawyer and former university professor Brian Woodworth. He is the next-best-funded candidate in the race, with more than $14,000 raised this cycle.

“If he’s capable of going out in the public with other people, why is it he’s incapable of saying a word to the people of the district?” Woodworth said, citing the Gawker story. “That’s what the voters need to think about. They have a Congressman who is bringing bad rapport to the district. If this is the kind of person they vote in, what does that say about the district?”

In the heavily Democratic and heavily African-American district, though, Woodworth has received no backing from the National Republican Congressional Committee, and he has a cash-on-hand disadvantage of Jackson’s more than $113,000 to his roughly $5,000.

All of this is why, according to a former Democratic operative familiar with the district, Jackson is still the frontrunner.

“It’s a strong Democratic district, but these are pretty extraordinary circumstances,” the operative said. “If you were to handicap the race, you would have to think that Congressman Jackson still has better than average chances, but this is pretty extraordinary, so it’s difficult to know what the reaction among voters will look like.”

Jackson’s hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, withheld an endorsement last week, and an editorial about the topic included the subhead, “Voters have a viable alternative,” referring to Jackson’s Republican opponent. 

“We’ve endorsed Jackson many times, including in a tough primary race in March against former Rep. Debbie Halvorson. We’ve given him the benefit of the doubt during a House ethics committee’s interminable investigation into whether Jackson tried to buy an appointment to the U.S. Senate from ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But Jackson has been out of commission for four months. ... It’s not fair to expect his constituents to go without representation indefinitely,” the editorial stated. “We make no endorsement in this race, a decision that could be revisited closer to
Nov. 6 if Jackson makes clear to the public he is able to serve.”

Despite the fact that the NRCC is not investing in the race, it is not shying away from slamming Jackson, which could mean his very presence in the Caucus could be a headache for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

“Competitive race or not, Jesse Jackson Jr.’s exhaustive trail of unethical behavior is further proof that Chicago-style politics is alive and well in the swamp of Nancy Pelosi’s Caucus,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said.

That is already revving up chatter of a primary run next cycle. 

Jackson’s most formidable challenge came in the Democratic primary this year from Halvorson, his longtime political foe. But Jackson won that primary with more than 70 percent of the vote.

Jackson’s spokesman declined to comment for this story.