The fury of the Foley scandal is threatening to sink Republican candidates in races across the country
Democrats have attempted to let the bad news simply run its course. "We're staying away from it, to be honest with you," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in an interview with U.S. News (story, Page 20). "I don't want this to be seen as partisan. ... We'll do gentle reminders." Top Democratic Party officials like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel stuck to previously scheduled appearances on the economy. Only if the story falls off the front page, a top Democratic strategist says, will they try to reignite it. "With DeLay, Ney, and Cunningham, it's been our playbook to sit back and let them cannibalize themselves and then engage," says the strategist, referring to former House leader Tom DeLay and ex-Reps. Bob Ney and Randy "Duke" Cunningham. All three Republicans resigned or dropped re-election bids in the past year under clouds of scandal.
Infighting. Deep cracks were certainly on display within a House leadership team known for a strict code of unity and discipline. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds, who suddenly finds himself in a very competitive House re-election race in New York, claimed that he'd confronted Hastert about Foley's behavior earlier this year, but the speaker says he doesn't remember the conversation. Claiming that he had similar talks with top staffers in the speaker's office, Reynolds's chief of staff resigned, prompting a written denial from Hastert's chief of staff. And Majority Leader John Boehner and Whip Roy Blunt separately sought to shift any responsibility for the scandal to Hastert.
While trying to show restraint, Democrats also tried to fit the GOP's handling of the Foley affair into their larger argument that the Republicans' unchecked grip on power has made them incompetent and corrupt. "You can't trust the Republicans with dealing with natural disasters," Dean says. "You can't trust the Republicans to defend America. ... And now, of course, you can't trust the Republicans with your kids." Before the Foley scandal, Democrats had all but abandoned attempts to tie Republicans to a "culture of corruption," a campaign rooted in the scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "Democrats had been arguing that Republicans had made Washington an autocratic place and that they were only interested in maintaining power," says Rhodes Cook, who analyzes congressional races in the Rhodes Cook Letter. "This [scandal] seems to underscore it and provide an Exhibit A in a way they couldn't do on their own."
Outside the beltway, in the dozens of districts where control of the House will be decided, Democratic candidates called on their Republican opponents to return donations from Foley. Many went further, insisting that Republicans return donations from anyone in the House leadership. Minnesota House candidate Patty Wetterling, a longtime child-safety advocate whose own son was abducted 17 yeas ago, was one of two Democrats nationwide to use the Foley fallout in a TV ad. "Congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children," the ad alleges. Last week, Foley's lawyer said Foley had "no inappropriate sexual contact with any minor." In Ohio, home to a competitive Senate race and up to five tight House races, many Democrats wasted no time exploiting the Foley scandal. "Deb Pryce needs to come clean with the voters and tell investigators about what she knew and when she knew it," says Mary Jo Kilroy, who is challenging the Columbus-area representative and fourth-ranking Republican.