By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006; A06
While political corruption has failed so far to take root as a national issue, the defeat of scandal-stained Ralph Reed in Georgia on Tuesday showed that federal investigators could tip some key House and Senate races this fall, according to party strategists.
Reed, a former top campaign official for President Bush and executive director of the Christian Coalition, lost the Republican primary for lieutenant governor after getting pounded by his opponent for his close and profitable relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the central figure in an unfolding money-for-favors scandal. Reed was the first electoral victim of political corruption probes -- but officials in both parties said he probably won't be the last.
Republicans worry that more than six candidates for the House and Senate could be hurt by Justice Department investigations, the courts and revelations in the Abramoff affair. Topping the list are Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), both bruised by Abramoff connections and facing tough races.
Anticipating more bad news, House GOP leaders are privately discussing a pre-election plan to compromise with the Senate on legislation clamping down on lobbyists and member perks, according to a GOP source familiar with the effort. The source, who discussed the plan on the condition of anonymity, said that if Ney or other Republicans are indicted, House leaders will drop their demands to include strict curbs on the special-interest election spending that favored Democrats in 2004 and quickly pass the lobbying bill to provide political cover to candidates.
Democratic leaders are concerned about a few of their members, too. Reps. William J. Jefferson (La.) and Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.) are under investigation. Party leaders are bracing for a possible pre-election Jefferson indictment that would undercut their campaign to paint Republicans as the party of corruption. Mollohan's troubles have given the GOP a shot at winning a seat otherwise considered solidly Democratic.
Three months from the election, the political scandals in Washington are not resonating broadly as a major issue in a campaign dominated by Iraq and high gasoline prices. A series of public polls show corruption ranks near the bottom when voters are asked about the most important issues in this campaign. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in May, 2 percent of voters listed ethics and corruption as their top concern.
"Whatever the problems are of any of those people, it does not affect another district," said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.). But those members under investigation might be "held accountable in their districts."
Reynolds and his counterpart, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), are responsible for masterminding their parties' election strategies and preparing for the worst. The ongoing investigations are complicating their efforts because there is little they can do to prepare for possible indictments, the leaking of embarrassing material from the investigations, or the reaction of candidates and voters.
"Where you are personally connected [to scandals], you are vulnerable on the issue," Emanuel said. He said that although corruption may not be a top issue, it "colors the environment of a self-indulgent Washington," which hurts Republicans most because they are in power.
Republicans consider Ney the likeliest victim of the corruption issue. He is running for reelection in Ohio's 18th District with a distinction no member wants: He has been identified as "Congressman A" in Abramoff's plea agreement. His former chief of staff has pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
Ney, a skilled politician, is running even or slightly behind Democrat Zack Space, according to strategists in both parties. Ney, a committee chairman until the scandal erupted, has told several colleagues and aides that the Justice Department has a rule against indicting members within 90 days of an election, increasing his chances of victory. A Justice official said there is no such rule. Ney spokeswoman Katie Harbath said, "We don't comment on Ney's conversations with other members."
Jefferson, whose congressional office was raided as part of a federal bribery and corruption probe, has signaled plans to proceed with his campaign in his New Orleans district even if he is charged.
Democrats have distanced themselves from Jefferson, removing him from the Ways and Means Committee. But Jefferson enjoys support among the Congressional Black Caucus and continues to raise money for his bid.
The biggest threat to Jefferson is an indictment before Aug. 11, the deadline for other Democrats to enter the race in a district dominated by Democrats. But there is precedent for Jefferson staying in. Rep. Raymond Lederer (D-Pa.) was indicted in the FBI sting operation known as Abscam and still won reelection in 1980. He was found guilty in 1981 and resigned.
Other members threatened by corruption charges include Republican Reps. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), John T. Doolittle (Calif.) and Richard W. Pombo (Calif.). A court ruling could force former majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) back into the race in Texas's 22nd District, a potential boon for Democrats. Even though DeLay resigned and wanted his name off the ballot, the court ruled it must remain. DeLay has appealed.