Running for office is hard enough without having to deal with unexpected damaging news, but onto each campaign some rain must fall. As for third-term South Carolina state Rep. Kris Crawford—well, he got caught in a deluge. On April 1, shortly after filing to run for a fourth term, Crawford, who represents the state’s 63rd district, which includes most of the city of Florence in the northern part of the state, was arrested and charged with failing to file state taxes on income totaling nearly $2 million between 2004 and 2007. And no, it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke.
The arrest was headline news in South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State. The local Florence Morning News, whose editorial board would go on to endorse Crawford’s general election opponent, Democrat Sheila Gallagher, ran the story on the front page, above the fold, and followed up regularly. The Republican lawmaker was charged with four misdemeanor counts of failing to file $1 million in personal income taxes and $1 million in corporate income taxes on his medical practice, Crawford Medical, LLC. Crawford recognized that he had no choice but to address the controversy.
The first powerful tool in Crawford’s corner was message and issue polling. “I have a longstanding relationship with [Republican polling firm] Wilson Research Strategies,” says Crawford. “They helped me do message polling and the message was clear: be upfront and candid about what is going on. People wanted me to be clear that it would not interfere with my job as a legislator.”
As a long-time community resident, Crawford was also able to trade on personal relationships with prominent locals. “My sheriff [Florence County Sheriff Kenny Boone] did a phone call for me,” Crawford recalls. “That obviously helped.”
Without dwelling on the matter, Crawford argued that the arrest was the result of a filing error committed by his former accountant. “Apparently the Department of Revenue for South Carolina has come to believe that some of the documents during those years were filed late,” Crawford said in a statement released immediately following the arrest. “Despite the fact that all of my taxes are paid, all of my documents that are necessary have been filed.” He also publically wondered whether his arrest—which took place during the candidate-filing period—might have been politically motivated.
Crawford managed to frame the tax issue as being one that millions of Americans face—albeit on a much smaller level. “We are not good at talking to each other about our personal finance situations,” he says. “You look people in the eye and tell them the truth, and the truth has a power all its own.”
In the end, voters in Crawford’s district were not as moved by personal scandals this year as they may have been in previous years—perhaps because they were so concerned about economic issues. “I saw more interest in actual policy in this election than I have seen in prior cycles,” Crawford says. “I spent time highlighting what I did legislatively in paid mail.”
Gallagher’s campaign sent out a single mailer on Crawford’s tax problems. Despite several front-page stories on the tax matter in the Morning News, she was frustrated by the lack of traction the issue achieved with average voters. “We talked to people, and it didn’t seem to play,” Gallagher recalls. “The people were willing to accept [that Crawford was] innocent until proven guilty.”
Crawford went on to win re-election by 28 points. While the Republican wave of 2010 helped him significantly, his forthrightness in addressing the charges against him, aided by poll-tested language, helped carry him through a serious crisis. Highlighting his roots in the community and his alliances with trusted officials also helped assuage concerns over his allegedly unlawful conduct.
Crawford’s tax case was scheduled to go to trial earlier this month, but was postponed indefinitely. In the lead-up to the trial, a judge granted Crawford’s attorneys’ request to subpoena records of communication between Governor-elect Nikki Haley and state Attorney General Henry McMaster, in an attempt to show that McMaster was pursuing charges against Crawford to divert attention from Haley’s own tax problems. (McMaster had endorsed Haley.).
If he is ultimately convicted, Crawford may be ousted from the House. For the time being, though, he looks forward to another term, thanks in large part to having dealt with the tax evasion issue head on.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at email@example.com