House campaign chairs snipe over personal attacks

AUSTIN, Texas — The heads of the two parties’ House campaign committees sparred over the tone of the battle for control of Congress in 2020 at a heated public event on Saturday.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, accused her counterpart, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer (Minn.) of “crossing a line” after the NRCC’s staff mocked freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) and his wife in press statements and on social media this week.

“And this week, it just so crossed a line — so crossed a line — that Chairman Emmer and the Republican congressional committee, the NRCC, went after the wife of a member of Congress because she [posted] on her social media about marriage counseling,” Bustos said at a panel discussion with Emmer at the Texas Tribune Festival.

The joint appearance between the two committee chairs came at the end of a turbulent week in the House, with Democratic leadership announcing support for an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s conduct.

Following that announcement, Amanda Cunningham, whose husband is a vulnerable freshman Democrat from a South Carolina district Trump carried by 13 points in 2016, posted on Instagram a favorable message about Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s support for impeachment.

Citing a previous Amanda Cunningham post in which she protested that her federally supported health insurance plan does not cover mental health services like therapy or marriage counseling, an NRCC spokeswoman sent a note to reporters.

“Looks like Mrs. Cunningham likes a man who supports baseless impeachment,” the NRCC's Camille Gallo wrote, above a screenshot of Amanda Cunningham’s Instagram story. “[W]onder if this will come up in Joe Cunningham’s marriage counseling?”

Emmer defended the message, which was also posted to the NRCC’s Twitter account.

“That was already published,” Emmer said Saturday, referencing news outlets that had picked up Amanda Cunningham’s complaint about her health insurance. “So, if someone’s got a problem with the publisher of the statement, that I think is where that should go.”

The NRCC’s attention-grabbing press strategy during this election cycle has come under sharp scrutiny — including from other Republicans, some of whom see the committee as too often resorting to belligerent Trumpian name-calling and extreme language.

At the event Saturday, Bustos said she had instructed the DCCC's staff not to attack Republicans personally, while Emmer declined to answer whether he had similarly instructed NRCC staffers.

“I don’t get personal," Bustos said. "I don’t talk about people’s wives. I don’t talk about people’s children. I don’t talk about if somebody’s in marriage counseling. I don’t talk about those kind of things. I think you can talk about somebody’s voting record, and I think all of that’s fair game. But I don’t believe in getting personal.”

Emmer argued that Democrats are the ones coarsening the political discourse. He made an apparent reference to comments from Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), who last week called retiring Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) “a racist Christian pretender” on Twitter and later told the Texas Tribune Conaway was “a chicken s--- generally.”

“I know what you’re saying today, but what you did a week and a half ago to a member of the Texas delegation, whose family and spouse did not inject themselves into a campaign and get published in a local newspaper,” Emmer said. “You went after the spouse and children, and they weren’t involved at all in the campaign process.”

But Vela’s attack didn’t come from Democrats’ campaign arm, and Bustos seemed confused by Emmer’s message.

“Can you elaborate?” she said. “Because I don’t know at all what you’re talking about.”

From there, the conversation devolved into heated crosstalk.

“Don’t accuse me of anything without …” Bustos responded before she was cut off.

“You accused me,” Emmer shot back.

“That was a fact,” said Bustos. “Does anybody want to call up their tweet?”

Later, during an audience Q-and-A at the end of the hour-long session, an attendee accused the two members of illustrating exactly what is wrong with Washington.

Steven Shepard reported from Washington.