As soon as Joe Biden reclaimed his position as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, the right set its sights once more on his son Hunter. Two days after Biden’s South Carolina victory, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin announced that he would soon subpoena the first witness in a Republican Senate probe into Hunter Biden’s work for the Ukrainian gas utility Burisma. Conservatives seized on the news with undisguised glee. The day after Super Tuesday, Trump said he’d make Hunter “a major issue in the campaign. I will bring that up all the time,” and Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum asked Kellyanne Conway if we could expect to hear “a lot more about investigations into the Biden family.”
Conservative pundits had been banging on about Burisma for months, but they are now ramping up their focus on Hunter’s ties to the D.C. consultancy Blue Star Strategies, which allegedly lobbied the State Department on behalf of Burisma and other political groups in Ukraine. One of the founders of Blue Star, a former Clinton administration official named Sally Painter, had previously served with Hunter on the board of a national security think tank. While their connection is nothing nefarious, Republicans seem to be preparing to use it to run the same playbook they wielded against Hillary Clinton—portraying a mundane ethics issue as evidence that the Democratic candidate is irredeemably embedded in the Washington establishment.
Biden may emerge unscathed. He has much higher favorability ratings than Clinton, and he will be running this fall against a toxic incumbent who has just botched a pandemic response. But if conservatives can paint Biden as a nepotistic swamp creature, they may be able to eat away at his core message: that his election would represent a return to the politics of integrity. As long as Johnson’s Senate probe produces a steady drip of revelations, conservative outrage will lead to damaging news cycles in the mainstream media. Eventually, those stories will cloud out the facts, and the only thing voters will remember is that Hunter did shady stuff somewhere, at some time.
Trump, of course, has done far worse (his own sons have quietly sold off more than $100 million in real estate since 2016), but he excels at shifting the blame onto others, and his sons are already playing offense. In March, Don Jr. challenged Hunter to a debate to “talk about who profited off of whose public service.” With a pandemic spreading through the country and both their fathers sheltering from infection, this race may soon devolve into an election fought by proxy, one son against the other.