By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Weeks before the Nov. 7 elections, the Mark Foley scandal and its aftermath have already had a visible effect on Republican prospects: Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), the two men leading the GOP efforts to keep power in the House, have both been largely sidelined from the public campaign.
Under normal circumstances, the House speaker and the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, currently Reynolds, would be in a full sprint in the closing weeks of an election campaign -- raising money and rallying partisans to help House members in the most competitive races. Both leaders, however, have drastically curtailed their appearances this month after coming under fire for what critics have called an inadequate response to early warnings about Foley's behavior with House pages.
Reynolds is now battling to hold on to his own district in Upstate New York, while Hastert has been tied down in Washington, holding news conferences and attempting to control the legal and political fallout from the uproar -- including demands from Democrats, commentators and at least some Republicans that he resign the speakership. Although speculation has centered on whether Hastert can hang on, and how much the episode is hurting Republicans at the polls, there is already a tangible impact on GOP fortunes.
In the past week alone, Republicans have canceled nearly a dozen campaign events with Hastert and Reynolds. Rep. Don Sherwood (Pa.) -- who is one of the GOP's most endangered incumbents after revelations that his former mistress had sued him in Maryland, alleging assault -- told both men not to come to his district, forgoing crucial campaign dollars to minimize additional negative news coverage. In addition, at least seven House GOP candidates have donated to charity nearly $20,000 in contributions that they had received from Foley before the scandal broke.
"Sometimes political reality takes over travel schedules," said Joe Gaylord, who was a top political adviser to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "This is one of those things where candidates have to decide for themselves what is best for their individual campaigns, and national leaders will follow that."
Increasingly, Republican candidates are telling their leaders to stay home. Houston City Council member Shelley Sekula Gibbs (R), who is running for former House majority leader Tom DeLay's open seat as a write-in candidate, had hoped that Hastert would come to Texas to tout its prospects for economic development. Last week, she told the speaker he need not visit.
"It would be a distraction. I have to focus on winning this race," Sekula Gibbs said in an interview. "They want me to focus on winning," she added, referring to the speaker's office.
Other Republicans have also canceled Hastert fundraisers, such as Rep. Ron Lewis (Ky.), who was once regarded as safe for reelection but now looks imperiled.
In other instances, the speaker and Reynolds are the ones pulling the plug. Hastert told both Rep. Michael E. Sodrel (R-Ind.) and Ohio state Sen. Joy Padgett that he could not stump on their behalf this month, while Reynolds canceled events with fellow New York Rep. John E. Sweeney and Florida businessman Vern Buchanan.
"My understanding is he had to go back to his district," said Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts. She added that the campaign went ahead with the Oct. 2 event aimed at "rallying some of our grass-roots supporters and leaders in the community."
Though Hastert and Reynolds have crisscrossed the country for months raising money and generating publicity for congressional candidates, it is not just money that matters at this point. Motivation counts just as much, because a visit by a House leader under better circumstances can help build the enthusiasm that is critical for turnout efforts.
Former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) said he has warned fellow Republicans "for a long time the biggest danger the Republican majority faced is insufficient turnout of their own base, and this Foley thing hasn't helped anything." Rallying the troops through last-minute campaign stops "can be very important," Armey said, recalling the efforts of Gingrich to "get people excited."
House leaders have not abandoned the campaign trail altogether. Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) attended a fundraiser yesterday on behalf of Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) and will campaign for other candidates in Minnesota and Iowa this week. Hastert will campaign today for Illinois Republicans Peter Roskam and David McSweeney, along with President Bush.
But freshman Rep. Melissa L. Bean (D-Ill.), McSweeney's opponent, said the speaker's appearance "doesn't surprise me" because McSweeney is "a rubber stamp" for the GOP. "People appreciate independence," Bean said.
Bush acknowledged at a news conference yesterday that the page controversy has resonated with the public.
"This Foley issue bothers a lot of people, including me," Bush said. But he added that Americans care more about national security and the economy when voting. "When they get in that booth, they're going to be thinking about, you know, how best to secure the country from attack and, you know, how best to keep the economy growing."
Neither Reynolds nor Hastert has said that the fallout from the Foley scandal has hampered their ability to run their party's reelection effort.
"It has not affected [Reynolds's] ability to be NRCC chairman, not at all," said NRCC spokesman Carl Forti. "I think you've seen over the past three years he's been able to run the committee, be home on weekends and when Congress is in recess, and still make decisions here. Nothing has changed that."
But several Democratic campaign experts, including former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Martin Frost (Tex.), said Reynolds's intensified reelection fight will distract him and take a toll on his ability to make last-minute decisions about where to focus the GOP's dollars and effort.
"You have to make some substantial judgments about who has a chance and who doesn't," Frost said. "The campaign chairman needs to bring all his faculties to bear on those questions. . . . This is enormous additional trouble, and I don't think they can survive this."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.