Republican Steve Scalise in hot water over 2002 meeting with 'neo-Nazi group'

By Anthony Zurcher
Editor, Echo Chambers

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So much for the winter holidays being a time of political quiescence.

On Sunday a Louisiana blogger reported that in 2002 Steve Scalise, then a state legislator, gave a speech to a white supremacist group holding a "workshop on civil rights" in Louisiana.

The following day Mr Scalise - now the third-ranking Republican in the US House of Representatives - acknowledged that he appeared before the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, although he says he didn't know the group had been accused of espousing a neo-Nazi agenda.

Complicating matters is the fact that one of the meeting's organisers was David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who served as a Louisiana legislator and ran unsuccessfully for the state's governorship and a Senate seat.

Mr Duke, at the height of his power, wielded considerable political influence in Louisiana, and his presence within the Republican Party was condemned by prominent party officials, including then-President George HW Bush.

Mr Scalise says he didn't know Mr Duke was involved in the conference, but Mr Duke told the Washington Post that the congressman was "friendly" with Mr Duke's campaign manager, Kenny Knight, who had extended the invitation. (In 2008, the Daily Beast reports, Mr Knight donated $1,000 [£642] to Mr Scalise's congressional campaign.)

Mr Duke told Bloomberg News that "it would seem likely he did know", although "I can understand why his memory would fail him a little bit".

Other reporters have dug up old news stories connecting Mr Scalise to Mr Duke, including a 1999 piece from the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, in which the Mr Scalise addressed the possibility that both he and Mr Duke would run for the same congressional seat.

"The novelty of David Duke has worn off," Mr Scalise said. "The voters in this district are smart enough to realise that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can't get elected, and that's the first and most important thing."

Quotes like this reveal the delicate line Southern Republicans have had to walk between advocating their core conservative beliefs while distinguishing themselves from those who share their politics but also harbour toxic views on race.

It's a challenge the party has grappled with for decades - and one that has brought down politicians more prominent that Mr Scalise.

The Daily Caller's W James Antle III - a conservative writing to a conservative audience - identifies the danger his party faces. He compares white supremacists like Mr Duke who attempt to enter mainstream Republican politics to termites, "eating away at the foundation of a house".

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image captionSouthern Republicans, and Democrats in past decades, have struggled with ties to white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan

"Many liberals conclude that conservatism is clandestinely racist and motivated by white backlash rather than genuine concern about taxes, welfare, crime or immigration," he writes. "And there is some justice to the charge that conservatives have not always done enough to distance themselves from racism."

He warns, however, that that the answer isn't for Republicans to back away from espousing strong conservative views. "If responsible conservatives don't take up issues like taxes, welfare, crime or immigration, racist kooks like David Duke will instead," he concludes.

A response among some Republicans when racial controversy swirls around one of their own and liberals start calling for resignations - whether it involves Mr Scalise or Senators Jeff Sessions or Trent Lott before him - is to point to the late Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, a prominent party leader who was an actual member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth (he later said it was the greatest mistake of his life).

According to the New Republic's Brian Beutler, however, such comparisons don't expose media and liberal hypocrisy, they show how party allegiances have shifted in the South over the past century.

"White identity has always driven politics in the South, but where it once propelled Democrats to power, it now, with less outward vitriol, helps elect Republicans," he writes.

He says things "aren't as bleak as they once were", as white allegiance is now based more on ideological issues. But the fact that politicians like Mr Scalise still feel compelled to appear before white supremacists groups - knowingly or unwittingly - and assure voters that they are more electable than David Duke indicates that the break isn't a clean one.

The other interesting thread in all this are the fault lines once again being exposed between establishment Republicans like Speaker of the House John Boehner and grass-roots, Tea Party Republicans.

Mr Scalise - who was elected to the House Republican leadership team after Majority Leader Eric Cantor was upset by a little known primary challenger - was supposed to be a way to bring more right-wing members of Congress into the fold.

The Louisiana Republican, as the former chair of a conservative congressional policy , had strong right-wing bona fides. The reaction of grass-roots conservatives to this controversy, however, shows that the efforts may have been in vain.

Mr Scalise, for instance, sided with the Republican leadership in supporting a major budget bill - the so-called "cromnibus" - that many conservatives viewed as packed with wasteful spending.

"Well he seemed like another Boehner stooge so far," one anonymous Republican congressional staffer told Breitbart's Matthew Boyle.

Boyle goes on to say that many grass-roots conservatives have been angered by the party establishment's contention that Tea Party candidates shouldn't win Republican primary battles because they are less electable.

"All that talk from GOP establishment figures about vetting GOP candidates could come back to bite them in a big way as the repercussions for Scalise's actions sort themselves out," he writes. "This scandal gives conservatives a major weapon against the Chamber of Commerce wing of the party should that talking point come out again."

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson of Red State says the controversy reflects poorly on Mr Boehner and his leadership team.

"My problem with Steve Scalise is judgement," he writes on Red State. "He, like much of the Republican leadership, is so focused on putting electability over principle that it trips up his judgement. And this situation with Duke is another example of that."

If the Republican leadership held itself to the same standards as it does Tea Party candidates, he concludes, Mr Scalise "would be boxing up his office today".

It's enough to have some conservatives fantasising about a right-wing coup in the House and a clean sweep of the party's leadership.

Conservative Louisiana commentator Ellen L Carmichael cautions, however, that Mr Scalise is about as conservative as any House leadership candidate is going to get.

"Be smart about this," she tweets.

At this point, the general consensus is that Mr Scalise will survive the controversy - as long as no new revelations of ties to white supremacists are unearthed. As Vox's Ezra Klein points out, however, there is now a crowd of national political reporters digging into the story, looking for the next piece of incriminating evidence. If they find more, the congressman's career could be at risk.

It's enough for some conservatives to wonder whether salvaging Mr Scalise's political career is a "hill we want to die on for the next three months", in the words of Breitbart's John Nolte.

In January Republicans are going to take control of both houses of Congress and attempt to steer the US on a more conservative course. If this story lingers, Mr Scalise may prove to be an unwanted distraction from their agenda.