Sex Scandal Fells Florida Democrat in Former Mark Foley District

Even a wave of Democratic voters cannot protect Tim Mahoney from defeat.

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Despite the election's leftward trends, it isn't a surprise that Republican Tom Rooney beat out incumbent Democrat Tim Mahoney for his House seat today. More surprising is what caused Mahoney's downfall—if only because, for the right-leaning south Florida district, it's so frighteningly familiar.

Mahoney, 52, lost his seat to scandal. But that's how he gained it in the first place. In 2006, his predecessor, 54-year-old Mark Foley, abruptly resigned after allegations that he sent sexually suggestive messages to young male pages on Capitol Hill. Berating Foley for not reflecting the "values and morals" necessary for office, Mahoney campaigned on a platform of ethics. One of his campaign ads read, over the image of him and his wife, "Restoring America's Values Begins at Home."

But those promises—and Mahoney's chance for re-election—vanished less than a month ago. News broke that Mahoney had an affair with a woman on his staff, after which he fired her and allegedly paid $121,000 to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit. Stories of that tryst were followed with another, this one with a Martin County government employee. She met Mahoney while seeking help to secure more than $3 million in hurricane cleanup funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mahoney admitted to "multiple affairs" but says he hasn't broken any laws. Still, his conduct is under investigation by both the FBI and a House ethics panel.

That was the end, says Dave Wasserman, the House editor at the Cook Political Report. "As soon as the scandal hit and Democrats abandoned Mahoney, he was no longer a viable candidate for Congress," he says. He even canceled his debate with Rooney after the sponsor wouldn't agree to a ban on television crews.

It was never going to be an easy race for Mahoney. His district, an oddly shaped area stretching from the western coast's Port Charlotte to the Atlantic's West Palm Beach, went for Bush by an 8 percent margin in 2004. And even though Florida law forbade Foley's Republican replacement from putting his own name on the ballot in 2006, Mahoney scraped through to win the seat by only 4,000 votes.

Meanwhile, 37-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers heir Rooney had several characteristics in his favor—aside from his clean reputation. His platform, which includes cutting spending, lower taxes, and fighting illegal immigration, appealed to conservative voters. He could bring a businessman's experience to the fiscal crisis and had a unified party behind him. With those kinds of qualities, it's no surprise, say Republicans, that the district's voters have come home to the party.

The question now will be if Rooney can avoid his district's curse long enough to keep them there.

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