Just days remain for Ohio Democrat Aftab Pureval to recover his momentum after a last-minute decision cleared him from allegations of campaign spending irregularities that overshadowed his bid for a Republican-held House seat.
The Ohio Election Law Commission dismissed Thursday the majority of a complaint that Pureval, a county official, had improperly used his county campaign account to make a $16,400 payment on a poll he used for his congressional bid against Rep. Steve Chabot in Ohio’s 1st District, according to local media reports. After a six-hour hearing, the commission could not determine whether a violation had occurred.
The commission did rule, however, that Pureval’s campaign improperly used the county account to pay for a $360 dollar photographer’s fee, a payment his campaign maintains was erroneously sent from the wrong credit card.
The campaign was fined $100 for that indiscretion. Sarah Topy, the campaign manager who took responsibility for the oversight, resigned the day before the ruling was announced, citing “new information,” according to reports.
Both sides seized on the ruling to say their cause had been “vindicated.” But with the decision coming in the waning days of a competitive campaign, it remains unknown how voters will respond.
“What it did was stalled or stopped the momentum that he had as a challenger,” said Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. “He had to have a lot of things going for him in order to win what was a gerrymandered Republican seat. Maybe he has fewer things going for him after these allegations came out. That may have hurt him.”
Several recent non-partisan and Republicans polls have shown Chabot with a single-digit lead in the race, a narrow margin compared to his performance in recent contests. Two polls by the Democratic firm GBA strategies showed the race even or a narrow lead for Pureval, according to the New York Times. President Trump won the district by 7 percentage points in 2016.
The complaint and resulting investigation have already played prominent roles in news coverage of the Ohio race, one of several districts that Democrats have targeted in the state. It complicated early depictions of Pureval, 36, as a charismatic political newcomer with the potential to unseat a longtime incumbent in a district drawn by Republicans.
Some commentators have said regardless of the outcome, Pureval’s campaign should still explain what local public radio commentator Howard Wilkerson called a display of “really poor judgement.”
Republicans seized on the allegations in attack ads that paint Pureval as inexperienced and even suggest he should go to jail. The investigation was cited by prominent race handicapper, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, as a reason it shifted the race rating from Toss-up to Leans Republican in late October.
Pureval downplayed speculation that the investigation had been a drain.
“Today, we are vindicated — the Ohio Ethics Commission agrees,” Pureval told reporters at a post-hearing news conference in Cincinnati, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Twenty-eight out of 29 complaints were dismissed as utterly baseless. The one issue found was a mistake, a clerical error that resulted in $100 fine, because one of my staff members hit the wrong number on Venmo.”
He followed up in a statement to Roll Call Friday.
“Our team is working hard, focusing on these issues that really matter,” he said. “In the final days, we are knocking doors and getting people to the polls. There is so much energy and excitement here on the ground and we will win on Tuesday.”
But his opponents doubled down.
“By not holding anyone accountable throughout this campaign, Aftab created a culture in which illegal activity is condoned, if not encouraged,” Chabot spokesman Cody Rizzuto said, according to the Enquirer.
Chris Finney, a lawyer employed by conservative watchdog and complaint originator Mark Miller, pointed out in an interview with WCPO Cincinnatti that Pureval did have to pay a fine.
“To that small extent, we feel vindicated in that there clearly was some improper expenditures,” he said.