As federal investigators try to get to the bottom of the misconduct -- and potentially criminal activity -- in the Veterans Affairs hospital system, calls for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to go are mounting. Politicians, however, aren't stopping there -- as they demand accountability for the serious problems in the VA system, both Democrats and Republicans are pointing fingers at their midterm opponents.
"Let's Make 2014 About Veterans," the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Senate Democrats' campaign arm, declared at the top of a slew of press releases Thursday, slamming Republicans' records on veterans' issues. One such email, targeting Arkansas Republican Senate candidate Rep. Tom Cotton, notes that Cotton - who has called on Shinseki to step down - voted against a measure in the House to spend an additional $9.2 million to help address the VA benefits claim backlog.
The DSCC attacks were framed as retaliation for new GOP and GOP-aligned campaign attacks against Democrats. In the case of the Arkansas race, Cotton on Tuesday released an ad railing against Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor's response to the scandal. The ad characterizes it this way: "Mark Pryor's response to the scandal? Silence -- he sides with Obama."
The White House insisted Thursday that President Obama is waiting to receive an internal report from Shinseki on the scandal before taking steps to ensure accountability at the VA. However, several Democrats up for re-election said on Thursday that they are now calling for Shinseki to step down. The growing calls for his resignation follow the release of an interim report from the VA Office of Inspector General, apparently confirming allegations of wrongdoing at a Phoenix hospital facility.
Before that report came out, the Republican National Committee on Wednesday launched a series of robocalls against vulnerable Senate Democrats and Democratic Senate candidates who have generally supported the Obama administration -- Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Udall of Colorado, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Mark Warner of Virginia, as well as Senate candidates Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, Rep. Gary Peters of Michigan, and Rick Weiland of South Dakota. (All on that list, with the exception of Begich, have called for Shinseki to resign in the wake of Wednesday's inspector general's report.)
The calls tie their support for the president to the VA scandal. "Why won't the president launch an independent investigation to get to the bottom of this?" the RNC robocall says, urging voters to call their senator to press them for an independent investigation.
Also on Wednesday, the Concerned Veterans for America -- a group linked to the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch -- launched a six-figure ad campaign pressuring Democrats to "stand up for veterans." The campaign is initially targeting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and five other Democrats (Hagan, Landrieu, Warner, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire). All but Reid and Pryor have called for Shinseki to step down.
Given the serious nature of the scandal, some politicians have suggested the political attacks are inappropriate.
The Karl Rove-linked group Crossroads GPS launched an ad this week attacking Begich for his response to the scandal, but one Republican House leader said the ad reduced the issue to a "political football."
"I wouldn't use anything like that politically," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said on CNN in response to the Crossroads ad. "I have tried since I've been the chairman of this committee to work with both sides."
When Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., sent a fundraising appeal to her supporters earlier this month tied to the VA scandal, Republicans pounced. National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Matt Gorman said in a statement that it was "beneath the dignity of her office" for Sinema to fundraise off of the scandal.
Soon after Gorman's statement came out, Sinema's campaign released a second email, claiming the first one was "accidentally" released. The Democrat said she made a $1,000 donation to the Wounded Warrior Project -- "more than double the amount of donations we received by mistake," her email apology said.
The attacks illustrate the challenge of trying to hold elected officials accountable without reducing a serious problem to a political flashpoint.
"The issue of how to better serve our veterans and how this scandal occurred will be an important issue over the next several months as voters head to the polls," Gorman said to CBS News. The difference between Sinema's email and the RNC robocalls, he said, was that Sinema's move was a "blatant attempt to raise money in the immediate aftermath of a horrific tragedy."
In other midterm campaign news:
Obamacare attacks continue: Conservative ads this week focused on more than just the VA scandal. The conservative Club for Growth launched a pair of ads against Pryor and Begich, comparing the Democrats to parrots for repeating the Obama administration's promises related to the Affordable Care Act. The Club for Growth said it was spending $300,000 to run the ads statewide in Arkansas and Alaska.
"Mark Pryor and Mark Begich voted for ObamaCare and then they parroted Obama's false promise that if you liked your plan you could keep it," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement.
Begich boasts about his opponent's ad: Alaska's Republican Senate candidate, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan ran an ad earlier this month declaring that Alaska needs a senator who delivers results, unlike Sen. Mark Begich. However, he made that declaration from the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage -- the Anchorage Daily News in 2009 called the civic center's construction the "crowning achievement" of Begich's tenure as mayor.
Begich this week released his own ad noting the irony of Sullivan's ad. "Well, I got the Dena'ina Center built that Dan was standing on," he chuckles in the ad. "I approve this message because here are some more nice places Dan could use in his next ad -- at Merrill Field, where I expanded the safety zone, at Eielson [Air Force Base], where we kept the F-16s, the new hospitals at Nome, at Barrow, the coal-fired power plant we saved ..."
Romney vouches for Ernst in Iowa: The Chamber of Commerce this week is seeking to give Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst some last-minute momentum ahead of Tuesday's primary race for the Republican Senate nomination in Iowa. Ernst is one of five Republicans running to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, and she would need to win at least 35 percent of the primary vote to secure the nomination.
The Chamber is running a statewide ad that highlights her military credentials, as well as a web ad featuring 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "As a mother, soldier and proven conservative, Joni has the kind of experience it'll take to put up a strong fight against Obamacare," Romney says in the ad.