By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Republican campaign officials said yesterday that they expect to lose at least seven House seats and as many as 30 in the Nov. 7 midterm elections, as a result of sustained violence in Iraq and the page scandal involving former GOP representative Mark Foley.
Democrats need to pick up 15 seats in the election to take back control of the House after more than a decade of GOP leadership. Two weeks of virtually nonstop controversy over President Bush's war policy and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's handling of the page scandal have forced party leaders to recalculate their vulnerability and placed a growing number of Republican incumbents and open seats at much greater risk.
GOP officials are urging lawmakers to focus exclusively on local issues and leave it to party leaders to mitigate the Foley controversy by accusing Democrats of trying to politicize it. At the same time, the White House plans to amplify national security issues, especially the threat of terrorism, after North Korea's reported nuclear test, in hopes of shifting the debate away from casualties and controversy during the final month of the campaign. These efforts are aimed largely at prodding disaffected conservatives to vote for GOP candidates despite their unease.
Still, GOP leaders privately said that Democrats are edging much closer to locking down a majority of House seats because a small but significant number of conservatives are frustrated with Republican governance, while independent swing voters are turning against GOP candidates.
"If you are a Democrat, you have to like the atmosphere," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), a top campaign strategist for the GOP. Davis said Republicans could lose as many as 30 seats if conditions worsen.
With four weeks left in the campaign, GOP strategists, speaking on background, have begun to outline a highly gloomy view of the House election for their party.
They are all but writing off GOP open seats in Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Florida (the one previously held by Foley). Party officials said that three GOP incumbents in Indiana are trailing in private polling and that seats thought safe suddenly appear imperiled. These include the open Florida seat vacated by Rep. Katherine Harris, who is running for senator. "It is unquestionably closer than we would like," said Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.).
In a sign that the political environment is getting worse for Republicans, political handicapper Charlie Cook now lists 25 GOP-held seats as a tossup -- seven more than before the Foley scandal broke Sept. 29. Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan expert on House races, has raised to nine the number of GOP seats tilting Democratic or likely to switch hands.
Unlike in most elections, when both parties defend several seats, Democrats are favored to win every seat they now occupy and are spending money to defend only a few. As a result, Democrats are not as vulnerable to the GOP's campaign finance advantage in the final weeks as they have been in past campaigns.
A Democratic takeover of the House is not a foregone conclusion, however. Because of congressional redistricting plans that gave huge advantages to incumbents, fewer than 50 of the 435 House seats are competitive. Democrats said internal polls show that the fallout from the Foley scandal is confined to half a dozen races. Moreover, House elections are traditionally shaped by local issues and personalities, and the closest races come down to which party can turn out its most loyal voters.
The page scandal erupted two weeks ago when Foley abruptly resigned after being confronted by ABC News with sexually explicit messages that he exchanged with a former page on the Internet. Investigations by the Justice Department, the House ethics committee and Florida authorities have ensued.
The GOP's emerging strategy on the Foley scandal is to try to limit losses among conservative voters who are expressing alarm about the scandal and about the apparent failure of GOP leaders to act on early warnings about Foley's behavior.
As part of that strategy, the Republican National Committee is seeking to convince conservatives that the debate is fundamentally centered on politics, not values. The RNC is shipping reams of information to conservative radio hosts, television commentators and bloggers. Those GOP talking points detail the Democratic connections of groups including the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and American Family Voices, which are working to turn the scandal into an issue with national implications.
The NRCC is highlighting Democratic leaders who supported former representative Gerry E. Studds (Mass.), who was censured by the House in 1983 after admitting to sexual contact with a male page a decade earlier; Studds went on to serve in Congress until 1997. "It is important to contrast how Republican leadership is handling the situation with problems with one of its own, and how Democrats did," said former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, a close White House ally.
Still, the "Foley factor" has made GOP strategists nervous. Several officials said it has dramatically undermined the reelection prospects of several incumbents, including Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), who was criticized by Democrats for not doing enough to stop Foley's advances on young male pages after learning about them this spring.
Several interest groups with Democratic ties are seeking to take advantage of Reynolds's newfound vulnerability. Majority Action, a group designed to help Democrats retake control of the House, is sponsoring a radio ad in which a narrator says: "Another scandal in Washington, and our Congressman Tom Reynolds is right in the middle." Two public polls show Reynolds trailing his Democratic challenger, Jack Davis, in a race neither side considered very competitive a few weeks ago.
Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), the fourth-ranking GOP leader, is facing the toughest reelection race of her career. She has said she had no prior knowledge of Foley's behavior but has faced criticism for telling a reporter that the former congressman was one of her closest friends in Congress.
"I don't think this is personally sticking to Deborah Pryce, but it is certainly having people have a more jaundiced view of Washington, which is not good for Republicans," said George Rasley, Pryce's spokesman. Pryce had a slight lead over Mary Jo Kilroy in her internal polling before the Foley scandal, an aide said, but Republicans expect Pryce to suffer as much as any incumbent for the renewed scrutiny of congressional ethics.
Scandals are hurting Republicans elsewhere in Ohio, where charges of corruption have rocked the GOP at the local and state levels for the past two years. In the open seat vacated by indicted GOP Rep. Robert W. Ney, Joy Padgett is struggling to lock down a reliably GOP seat east of Columbus, the state capital. Polls show Democrat Zach Space, a liberal critic of the war, on top and GOP strategists agree Padgett is behind.
"It is definitely a challenge to overcome," says Padgett spokesman Morgan Ortagus. "Voters are definitely in a throw-the-bums-out mood."
Space is calling for Hastert's resignation and is asking Padgett to do the same. Padgett canceled a fundraiser with Hastert last week.
In other races where Republican incumbents have been dogged by scandal, Democrats are pushing the Foley story hard.
Former representative Nick Lampson (D-Tex.) is asking Houston City Council member Shelley Sekula-Gibbs (R) to call for the resignation of any member of the House leadership who knew about the e-mails and instant messages exchanged between Foley and former congressional pages. The two candidates are competing for the seat from the 22nd Congressional District, left vacant by the departure of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R), who is under indictment in Texas.
Elsewhere, the political debate is returning to traditional disputes over the war, taxes and health care, according to Democrats and Republicans. The Foley story "is getting a lot of attention now, but I don't think it will have the legs to last four weeks," said Ron Carey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party.