The fury of the Foley scandal is threatening to sink Republican candidates in races across the country
Like the rest of their race, last week's debate between Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays and Democratic challenger Diane Farrell was supposed to be all about Iraq. Instead, the first question was about what should happen to the House Republican leadership in light of revelations of obscene electronic messages from ex-Rep. Mark Foley to teenage boys working as congressional pages. "This is one more illustration of what has been happening with the existing Republican leadership," said Farrell, who'd called for the resignation of House Speaker Dennis Hastert earlier in the day. "It has been one mistake or one scandal after another." Thrown on the defensive, Shays called Hastert a "very good and decent man" and argued that calls for his resignation were premature, since allegations that Hastert knew of Foley's lewd conduct for years had yet to be proven.
Then it was time to get back to Iraq. But the next questioner, a news anchor from New Haven, asked about the Foley scandal, saying, "I am not sure we have exhausted this topic." By the time the subject of Iraq surfaced, nearly a quarter of the hourlong debate was over.
That's bad news for Shays, and for Republican incumbents across the country who are trying to retain control of Congress in next month's midterm elections. As each day last week brought new questions about how the Republican leadership handled the Foley affair, the political implications came into sharper focus. An Associated Press-Ipsos Poll released late last week found that roughly half of likely voters said corruption and scandals in Congress would be very or extremely important in how they cast their ballots on November 7. The poll also found that voters trusted Democrats over Republicans to combat corruption by a margin of almost 2 to 1. Pollster John Zogby says his internal polls found a precipitous drop-off in Republican support. "When voters make a radical turnaround like this," Zogby says, "it could be the beginning of a free-fall."
"Tidal wave." Hastert stanched the bleeding at least temporarily with a press conference that managed to be both blunt and folksy. "The buck stops here," he vowed, and for the moment he seemed to get the benefit of the doubt (box). The House ethics committee quickly issued dozens of subpoenas for House members and personnel. But Republican concerns about what had already been a nasty election climate only continued to mount along with increasingly repellent disclosures of Foley's behavior toward the pages. "Our one advantage over the Democrats had been money, but just how much money does it take to overcome this tidal wave of media attention?" asked Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. Coupled with growing voter unease about the U.S. involvement in Iraq, the Foley revelations appear to be accelerating possibly the two most important trends of this election cycle: the growing number of independent voters breaking for Democrats and the swelling ranks of conservatives who appear more inclined to stay home on Election Day than support the GOP. Some analysts said that the House might now be the Democrats' to lose and that the Senate now stands a chance of falling out of Republican control.