GOP Contest Prompts Yawns Outside Beltway

By Jim VandeHei and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 20, 2006

As some House Republicans campaign to oust their scandal-blemished GOP leadership team, they are facing an obstacle back home. It seems many voters could not care less.

In interviews, more than a dozen Republican lawmakers who are home for a long January break said constituents are talking a great deal about high gas prices and even a best-selling book about killing the Internal Revenue Service, but not much about the intrigue gripping Capitol Hill. Even many of those voters who are closely following the leadership contest or the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal reportedly tend to deride all lawmakers as money-grubbing operators, and express little faith that Congress can be cleaned up by any politician.

"I don't get the sense many people are paying attention," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who has been hoping party activists would lead demands for a shake-up. "Corruption is still 90 percent an inside-the-Beltway" issue.

The lack of grass-roots enthusiasm for broad changes on Capitol Hill may work to the advantage of Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), several legislators said. By most estimates, he is leading the race to become the next House majority leader -- despite his extensive connections to lobbyists, including some involved in the Abramoff scandal.

Blunt's right-hand man, Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), another member of Rep. Tom DeLay's leadership team, is similarly favored to replace Blunt as majority whip, the third-ranking party leadership post.

The absence of a grass-roots rebellion has hindered the insurgent leadership campaigns of Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) and others who are calling for fundamental changes in the way House Republicans govern in Washington, lawmakers said. Shadegg is running a distant third behind Blunt and Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a longtime GOP insider with close ties to lobbyists.

Even some political junkies are yawning at the race. "Ethanol subsidies are more interesting," a reader of the Web log of the conservative National Review, which has endorsed Shadegg, wrote yesterday.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who is running for majority whip as a proponent of change, lamented that more people are talking about conservative commentator Neil Boortz's best-selling book on changing the tax code than about changing Washington. "The question is, is this a climate where an actual reform candidate could be elected to a leadership position?" Wamp asked. An initial pulse-taking of voters suggests that the answer is no, he and others said.

Leadership races usually turn on friendships and deal-cutting, but a number of House Republicans are banking on frustration among party activists and rank-and-file members to help usher in a new era of leaders more committed to curtailing spending and ending corruption. The thinking is that if lawmakers fear losing their jobs and control of the House, they would be more inclined to vote out the team tied to DeLay.

But, at least in the first weeks of January, lawmakers said gas prices, the new prescription drug benefit and the Iraq war are more immediate concerns among voters. And there is mounting polling evidence that voters consider both parties corrupt and distrust Washington in general. A Diageo/Hotline Poll released yesterday found that 72 percent of registered voters said corruption is equally bad inside the two major parties. Less than one in five said Republicans are more corrupt. Other polls show Democrats with a significant edge when voters are asked about who they want elected to the House.

Democrats are trying to make the 2006 elections into a contest about ethics, accusing Republicans of fomenting a "culture of corruption" epitomized by the Abramoff money-for-favors scandal. But Republicans are hitting back hard, accusing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) of ignoring Democratic ethical lapses and their own potential scandal involving Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.) -- implicated by a former aide who recently pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to bribe the New Orleans Democrat.

Analysts note that it can take months for an issue to resonate with voters -- and that as the November elections near, people might become more inclined to pay attention.

Blunt says he has the backing to win the House GOP leadership contest, but the secret ballots will not be cast until Feb. 2, leaving more than two weeks for the temperature back home to go up and for members to return to Washington in an anxious mood.

Although the initial hubbub around the race has subsided, Shadegg picked up two high-profile supporters yesterday -- Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who leads the conservative Republican Study Committee.

None of the developments, however, appears to resonate beyond the Beltway. GOP Rep. John R. "Randy" Kuhl Jr., a freshman backing Blunt, said he has held 22 town meetings this month in his moderate New York district. He said the leadership race and the related ethics cloud have come up exactly once, when someone jokingly asked him, "Are you best buddies with Abramoff, and is that how you pronounce it?"

Kuhl, who won his district with 51 percent of the vote, is one of nearly a dozen Republicans who are considered vulnerable in November and who have decided to back Blunt.

Loyalty is one reason. In his current job as majority whip, Blunt has been particularly solicitous of new members. Another is the desire for continuity, given the potentially difficult political year ahead for GOP members on shaky political ground.

Rep. David G. Reichert (Wash.), another freshman Republican with a tough reelection race, said he is also hearing little back home about the House leadership swirl. "People are more in tune with big picture stuff," said Reichert, a Blunt supporter. "People are looking at their representatives individually and saying, 'Is this man or woman doing the job I elected him or her to do?' "

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