Back in 1988, when Chris Matthews was better known as an aide to recently retired House Speaker Tip O’Neill than as the television commentator that he is today, he wrote an excellent political primer for candidates, campaigns and politicians called Hardball. A chapter on how to deal with brewing scandal was called “Hang a Lantern on your Problems.” In short, don’t try to hide your trouble. Get the bad publicity over as fast as possible.
That is exactly the tactic taken this week by U.S. Representative Joe Barton as a naked selfie that he sent to a girlfriend in 2015 threatened to add him to the Anthony Weiner Hall of Selfie Shame. Weiner is the former New York congressman who initially ruined his career with naked pictures of himself, and an FBI investigation into his sexting a teenager last year spilled over into bad publicity for Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in the final days before the election.
When the naked picture of Barton first appeared on social media this week it caused a Twitter titter. The photo had digitally hidden Barton’s private parts, although his face and belly are easily seen, as well as the text message that began with, “I want you soo bad Right now.” The next three words were sophomoric and reminiscent of a bodice-busting romance novel.
As the Texas Tribune broke the story on Wednesday, Barton was quick to point out that it was taken as part of a consensual relationship with an adult woman. The Ennis Republican was quick to apologize for using bad judgment. “While separated from my second wife, prior to the divorce, I had sexual relationships with other mature adult women,” he said. “Each was consensual. Those relationships have ended. I am sorry I did not use better judgment during those days. I am sorry that I let my constituents down.”
So Barton’s first reaction was to hang a lantern on his problem, even if that meant admitting to a technical state of adultery. While very conservative and a member of the Freedom Caucus, Barton has never been one of the more outspoken social conservatives in Congress.
Next, his staff quickly pivoted to portraying him as a victim of revenge porn. In our modern era of cell phone cameras, many people have experienced spurned lovers posting naked photos of them on the internet in a deliberate attempt to shame or embarrass – and possibly in the case of a politician to ruin their careers. Plus, Texas has a new law making revenge porn a Class A misdemeanor. As salacious as a naked photo of a congressman might be, victimhood goes a long way toward earning forgiveness from voters.
The New York Times quoted a Barton statement as saying he had suffered “a potential crime.” The Washington Post contacted the woman involved, and she denied being the person who posted the photograph. The woman told the Post that Barton had complained to her in 2015 about sharing explicit photos with other women in his life. Barton told the newspaper that he had accepted an offer from the Capitol Police to investigate the incident. The Dallas Morning News quoted a spokesman for Barton, 68, as saying the congressman has filed for re-election and has no intention of resigning.
There is little reason for Barton to worry about the politics of his re-election. His 6th Congressional District, which stretches from southeast Tarrant County through Ellis and Navarro counties is safely Republican. Phil Gramm was representing the district when he switched parties from the Democratic to Republican parties in 1982. Gramm resigned and won re-election to the district in a special election in 1983. Barton captured the seat in 1984 when Gramm successfully ran for the U.S. Senate.
The district has been reconfigured more than once since then, but has remained a Republican stronghold. President Trump received 54 percent of the vote there last year, and in 2014 U. S. Senator John Cornyn got 60 percent of the vote, while Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton all received about 58 percent. In his statewide re-election victory of 2010, former Governor Rick Perry got 56 percent of the vote in Barton’s district.
So far, the only Democrat shown as filing against Barton on the Texas Secretary of State website is Ruby Faye Woolridge, who received just 39 percent of the vote in a challenge to Barton in 2016. The web site showed no Republicans as having filed, including Barton, but candidates file with the parties so there may be a delay in showing up on the state list. The filing deadline for the 2018 primaries is December 11, giving very little time to organize a campaign for any candidate, Democrat or Republican, who wants to exploit this scandal.
Although the election numbers favor Barton surviving the scandal, there is no doubt that two failed marriages and texting naked photos of yourself to a woman who is not your wife will not sit well with voters of a Republican Party that considers itself the party of family values. The scandal will hurt Barton politically. But if Barton decided to resign, a special election could not be held before the filing deadline. Republicans would have to settle on an agreed-to candidate or the possibility would exist of one person winning the nomination to run for a full term as the district congressman while a different person could win the special election to fill out Barton’s term. The greater likelihood–if Barton decided his political effectiveness is lost–would be that Barton merely announces that he will withdraw from the ballot and not seek re-election.
Barton had been chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee until 2007 but term-limited out under House rules. He now is vice chair of the panel. He has been one of the leading advocates of the energy industry in Congress, but he also has opposed deporting young people who were brought into the country by undocumented parents when they were children.
Revelations of the naked selfie comes at a time when there is a heated focus on women’s sexual harassment claims against men in the media and politics. And that, no doubt, is part of why Barton made clear that this was part of a consensual relationship that went bad sometime after the photos were exchanged. The woman involved told the Post that she had sex with Barton twice, once in Washington and once in Texas.
The best thing for Barton is the timing. While the controversy was a Thanksgiving feast for political junkies, it likely will be old news by the time average Texans return to work on Monday.