How Aaron Schock's Big Spending Has Given Him Political Protection

Despite bad headlines and ethics trouble, observers say Schock may not face a primary, thanks partly to years of high-energy campaigning and fundraising for local Republicans.

Aaron Schock interviewed in his office on Arpil 26, 2012. (National Journal)

Think Aaron Schock's alleged spending problems will cause him real political problems back home? Think again.

Despite a string of allegations related to lavish spending and possible misuse of funds, the Illinois Republican looks likely to avoid a primary challenge thanks to a wall of support he has steadily built among local politicians by spreading around campaign cash.

(RELATED: Another Bad Trip for Schock)

Indeed, in his central Illinois district, where the GOP primary is the only election that matters, there's little chatter about anyone looking to run against him.

"In the 18th District, his name is still golden," said Katherine Coyle, chair of the Peoria County Republican Party. "We have candidates running for school board who still want his input."

Schock has come under increasing criticism for billing expensive travel and entertainment charges, including a fee (since repaid) for a private flight from his district to see a Chicago Bears game. He's also battling three ethics complaints on top of allegations dating from 2012 that he illegally solicited a five-figure super PAC donation from Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader.

Still, few in Illinois see these problems in Washington translating at home. "People aren't sensing that he's in any real trouble," said a longtime Illinois GOP operative, who asked for anonymity to speak about Schock to avoid association with his current issues. "The guy just works his tail off. That's the one thing that's always been known about him."

Schock formed a political machine in his district while rising from 19-year-old school board candidate to 27-year-old first-term House member. In that time, Schock's personal popularity and name recognition (he won 75 percent of the vote in his 2014 general election after an unopposed primary win) has grown in step with the network of supporters and local politicians who have received checks from PACs affiliated with him.

One such group, the 18th District Republican Central Committee, has distributed almost $280,000 to Illinois Republicans over the past four years. Coyle, the Peoria GOP chair who is running for city council, is just one of many local candidates who have received checks from the PAC, which raises money in conjunction with Schock's official campaign account. At one local event in 2011, Schock pledged $1,000 to 10 different candidates for different local boards and legislative bodies.

Schock's fundraising skills also have won him friends in Washington. Between his own donations and money he raised, Schock accounted for $2 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2014.

Right now, he's keeping his head down: Politico reported that Schock has canceled fundraising events and has brought in lawyers to review his office and campaign spending. One of the veteran GOP operatives he has hired to help manage his situation, Brian Walsh, declined to comment for the story. But allies insist Schock has built enough credit to withstand the scandal.

"If you're starting out as personally likable and popular as Schock is, then the burden of proof is going to be much higher," said a GOP strategist with ties to House leadership who wouldn't speak about Schock's ethics situation on the record.

Certainly, Schock has some enemies within the Republican Party: The conservative Club for Growth promoted an effort to defeat Schock in a primary last election cycle, although a challenger never came forward. Schock has a 58 percent lifetime vote score from the club, which sometimes bankrolls conservative challengers to members of Congress.

A left-leaning ethics group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has filed three ethics complaints against Schock, including one that alleges he sold his home to a campaign contributor for more than its market value. Investigations have also revealed that Schock spent tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer and campaign funds for private flights, music concerts and Downton Abbey-inspired decorations for his Washington office. And on Sunday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Schock billed taxpayers to fly to Chicago for an NFL game last year.

Early last month, a top Schock adviser resigned after racist remarks on his Facebook page were discovered.

Schock isn't the only safe-seat GOP lawmaker facing news that one might expect to spark a political challenge. In South Texas, Rep. Blake Far­enthold is grap­pling with a law­suit ac­cus­ing him of il­leg­al gender dis­crim­in­a­tion and cre­at­ing a hos­tile work en­vir­on­ment—and polit­ic­al ob­serv­ers also say that he’s likely not in elect­or­al danger.

"Anybody I've talked to has dismissed the lawsuit," said Don Al Middlebrook, a Republican who ran against Farenthold in 2012. (He now chairs the Wharton County Republican Party.)

Last month, Farenthold formally denied charges in a lawsuit filed by a former employee who claimed that he sexually harassed and discriminated against her.

"Given that he responded to these allegations in a very robust and detailed and exhaustive way, that further reinforces among his constituency his innocence." Farenthold spokesman Kurt Bardella said. "More than anything else, he is going to be judged by the job he does in Congress."

Republican operatives stressed that the circumstances for Schock and Farenthold are different—but ultimately that neither is likely vulnerable. Still, for Schock, who has eyed statewide office and once reportedly considered challenging NRCC Chairman Greg Walden for his post in the House GOP leadership, his rise may be temporarily stalled.

His district's main newspaper, the Peoria Journal Star, ran an editorial last month—"Caviar congressman in meat-and-potatoes district?"—suggesting that Schock might not be the right fit for voters there. It's still early, but there is no indication yet that someone plans to give voters another choice.