By Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Republican strategists said yesterday that public revulsion over the sexually graphic online conversations between Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and former House pages could compound the party's problems enough to tip the House to the Democrats in November -- and could jeopardize the party's hold on the Senate as well.
As House GOP leaders defended their role in handling revelations that forced Foley on Friday to give up his House seat, party strategists said the scandal threatens to depress turnout among Christian conservatives and could hamper efforts to convince undecided and swing voters that Republicans deserve to remain in the majority.
There was intense anger among social conservative activists in Washington yesterday, and some called for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to resign.
Republican operatives closely following the battle for the House and Senate said that they are virtually ready to concede nearly a third of the 15 seats the Democrats need to recapture control of the House, and that they will spend the next five weeks trying to shelter other vulnerable incumbents from the fallout of the Foley scandal in hopes of salvaging a slender majority.
Districts in which Republicans have effectively walked off the field include Foley's own in South Florida. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a radio interview with conservative commentator Sean Hannity that the party's replacement candidate is all but doomed. Because of ballot procedures in Florida, "to vote for this candidate, you have to vote for Mark Foley," Boehner said. "How many people are going to hold their nose to do that?"
Others warned that the impact could be much greater. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and an important social conservative leader, said "there's a real chance" that the episode could dethrone the Republican majority. "I think the next 48 hours are critical in how this is handled," he said, adding that "when a party holds itself out as the guardian of values, this is not helpful."
Foley's sudden resignation came at the end of a week that had delivered a series of blows to Republican hopes in November. A National Intelligence Estimate asserted that the war in Iraq is fueling new threats from Islamic jihadists faster than the United States and allies can contain them, then a new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post said the administration's private assessments of Iraq are far worse than officials are telling the public. Taken together, GOP strategists said, the events of the past 10 days reversed what some Republicans had seen as a modest rebound in September after the worst days of the summer.
By yesterday, a number of GOP strategists reported widespread gloom about the party's prospects, combined with intense anger at the House leadership.
Joe Gaylord, who was the top adviser to Newt Gingrich (Ga.) when Republicans seized control of the House in 1994, was pessimistic about the party's midterm prospects. He said the fallout from Foley's resignation comes "very close" to ensuring a Democratic victory in November.
"The part that causes the greatest fallout is the obvious kind of pall that an incident like this would put on our hardest-core voters, who are evangelical Christians," he said. "The thing I have said almost since this cycle began is the real worry you have is that [Republicans] just won't turn out. This is one more nail in that coffin."
Depressed turnout would not only hurt vulnerable House incumbents but also make it more difficult for Republicans to hold the most competitive Senate seats -- many of those races are now virtually even, according to recent polling.
Hastert faces a spreading revolt among some conservatives over the way he and other GOP leaders handled the matter when first alerted to the contact between Foley and one former House page. Hastert said again yesterday that no House Republican leader knew about the most graphic communications until they surfaced on Friday, but that did little to satisfy some conservative activists.
David Bossie, who runs a group called Citizens United, called yesterday for Hastert's resignation and said other conservative leaders are likely to follow suit. Bossie said the initial e-mails alone, which included Foley's request of a minor's picture, should have prompted an immediate inquiry. "That was a cry for an investigation," Bossie said. "Why couldn't the speaker of the House muster the will to stop this?"
Leaders from about six dozen socially conservative groups held a conference call late yesterday afternoon, and participants were described as livid with House GOP leaders.
"They are outraged by how Hastert handled this," said Paul M. Weyrich, a conservative activist who participated in the call. "They feel let down, left aside. How can they allow a guy like [Foley] to remain chairman of the committee on missing and exploited children when there is any question about e-mails?"
Vin Weber, a GOP lobbyist close to the White House and to congressional leaders, said many Republicans outside of Washington are echoing Bossie.
"From what I hear, it is resonating badly and our candidates are on the defensive about this," Weber said. "The maddening thing about this is if they had done the right thing" by informing Democrats early on and investigating it fully, "there would be no political fallout," he said.
Top GOP strategists said party leaders will concentrate on trying to keep the focus of the unfolding story on Foley, rather than on how House leaders responded when informed about his contacts with former pages.
"I don't know of any race ever where the action of one member has impacted the race of another," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Republicans are bracing for ads that link previous scandals with the Foley case and ask, "Had enough?" Several strategists said this could be devastating in tight races. The most optimistic scenario offered by GOP strategists is that no new information surfaces and the controversy ends in the next five weeks.
Republicans have designated state Rep. Joe Negron as the substitute candidate in Florida's 16th District, even as Boehner and others denigrate his prospects.
Republicans say they are in grave danger of losing the seat of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), as well as those held by Rep. Robert W. Ney (Ohio) -- who agreed to plead guilty to corruption charges in the investigation into the activities of convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- and Rep. Don Sherwood (Pa.), who has been embroiled in a scandal over an affair.
In addition, Republicans have largely given up on holding the seat of retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.), and strategists are pessimistic about retaining open seats in Colorado and Iowa and the seat now held by Rep. John N. Hostettler (Ind.).
Some Republicans also said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), the NRCC's chairman and one of the GOP leaders who knew about a non-graphic communication between Foley and a former page, could face an even tougher challenge for his Buffalo area seat. Reynolds and Hastert sniped at each other over the weekend about who knew what and when.