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.
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.
Evangelical angst. Some Christian conservatives, meanwhile, say the scandal not only threatens to keep from the polls voters who are disillusioned with a party that espouses "morals and values" but also threatens to dampen organizing efforts that were so important to the Republican victories of 2004. "This is a betrayal of the public trust," says Russell Johnson, a prominent evangelical pastor who leads the Ohio Restoration Project of roughly 1,700 pastors and church leaders. "We're finding more skepticism and more malaise at a time when we need people to care about the political process instead of being cynical." A column on World Net Daily, an influential website among antiabortion activists, sought to rally support by reminding them that a Democratic-controlled Senate could hold up President Bush's next Supreme Court nomination. "Pro-lifers planning to punish the Republican Party and Republican pro-life candidates next month for being less than perfect," the column read, "are behaving just like Democrats who advocate a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq."
Indeed, Johnson and other leaders of the Christian right are standing by the Republican leadership, accusing Democrats of using a double standard because they declined to pressure Democratic lawmakers like ex-Rep. Gerry Studds and Rep. Barney Frank to resign after they were implicated in sex scandals. "Voters of faith are very sophisticated," former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed tells U.S. News. "They can make a distinction between an individual's moral failure and a systematic failure on the part of the Republican Congress. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Republican leadership was aware of this sexually explicit communication." Conservative evangelical groups like Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America went so far as to assign blame to liberals, arguing that acceptance of homosexuality as a cultural norm created the conditions for the Foley scandal.
But Zogby's polling shows that evangelical Christians, 78 percent of whom supported George Bush two years ago, are now backing Republicans with a little over 50 percent support. And the Democrats are working to take advantage of that opening. "A significant number of evangelicals have decided they'd prefer not to vote for Republicans in this election," says Dean. "The issue now is to make them comfortable with voting for Democrats." Or, perhaps, with not voting at all.
With Silla Brush
This story appears in the October 16, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.