In Key Races, Democrats Look at Rivals' Personal Lives
Amid Voter Disgust Over Foley Scandal, Strategists Believe Attacks on GOP at Local Level Won't Backfire

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

In the wake of the Mark Foley page scandal, Democrats are targeting the personal lives of Republicans in numerous key House races as part of a campaign to capitalize on voter disgust with the messy personal lives and alleged character defects among elected officials.

Although Democrats' internal polling shows that the Foley scandal is resonating deeply only in half a dozen races, party operatives are calculating that GOP candidates are now unusually vulnerable to personal attacks, several candidates and strategists said.

In New Jersey, Democratic candidate Linda Stender this week sent voters a two-page brochure accusing Rep. Mike Ferguson (R) of improperly preying on young women in a fashionable D.C. nightclub. Stender, who is shown by polls to be within striking distance of Ferguson, said the Foley affair "opened the door to talk about the ethical challenge of my opponent." Ferguson has denied the allegations, and a spokeswoman last night called the attacks "pathetic and desperate."

Democratic candidate Chris Carney is running an ad accusing Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) of "repeatedly choking" and "attempting to strangle" a young mistress. Foley and Sherwood share "the arrogance of power," said Carney. "They're willing to cover up these types of things to retain power."

Sherwood has apologized for the affair but said in a television ad that the "allegation of abuse was never true."

Democratic candidate Kirsten Gillibrand is calling on GOP Rep. John E. Sweeney in Upstate New York to explain a drunken driving arrest 30 years ago and a more recent car accident. "Your decision to release any and all records related to your arrests and other incidents with law enforcement will send an important signal about your willingness to come clean with voters," Gillibrand said in a letter to Sweeney this week.

The Sweeney campaign has said that the details of both incidents are out in public and that the congressman has nothing to hide. The lawmaker fired back yesterday by calling on Gillibrand to release her tax records, suggesting that she has her own secrets.

"It is attack and distract," said Maureen Donovan, a spokeswoman for Sweeney.

All three races highlight a much broader Democratic campaign to politicize the Foley page scandal over the final four weeks of the campaign, Democratic candidates and strategists say.

Top Democratic officials believe "that anybody who had a personal vulnerability before this is totally [at risk] with the spotlight on scandal," said a Democratic aide familiar with the party's plan to take advantage of the Foley affair. "Frankly, it is a tough environment out there if you have a problem with the bottle or the zipper."

Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said the effectiveness of the charges "often depends on what the person is accused of having done and their reputation and standing in the community -- national climate has nothing to do with it."

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie said Democrats are dangerously close "to overreaching" in their attacks, risking a political backlash like the one that damaged Republicans after they pushed for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal in 1998. Democratic operatives said they are aware of this possibility but are calculating that, as long as the attacks are at the local level, they will not backfire.

Republicans and Democrats alike said personal attacks are especially potent in districts that were not as competitive before the public's renewed focus on controversy and alleged coverups. Both sides are reporting high voter interest in the unfolding revelations that Foley repeatedly preyed on young male pages while in Congress and that GOP leaders were aware of concerns about the lawmaker's behavior and allegedly did little to stop it.

So far, there is general agreement that about half a dozen GOP candidates are suffering as a direct result of the controversy. Topping that list are NRCC Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who was told of Foley's questionable behavior and said he reported it to his superiors, and Sherwood, whose former mistress, in a lawsuit, accused him of choking her.

Many Republicans also said it will be virtually impossible for the newly designated Republican candidate in Foley's district to win, because Foley's name remains on the ballot.

The most common Democratic attacks have been the sort used against Republicans such as Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), a member of the House GOP leadership team who has said she knew nothing of the allegations against her friend and colleague Foley. Nonetheless, Democrats are criticizing her for not catching warning signs and for being part of a team that they say averted its gaze from Foley's problems.

A big part of the Democratic strategy in Pryce's district and elsewhere is to suppress turnout among Christian conservatives, a pillar of the GOP coalition.

But there have also been attempts to take advantage of the Foley episode to highlight corruption issues more broadly.

For the Ohio seat to be vacated by indicted Rep. Robert W. Ney (R), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is blanketing the district with mail saying GOP candidate Joy Padgett, a state senator, is too "dirty" to clean up Congress. "You can't clean up Congress if you are covered in mud," the mailings say, drawing links between Padgett and Ney. The DCCC is also running television ads questioning her personal business dealings. The offensive coincides with Ney's expected guilty plea on Friday in the money-for-favors scandal involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Top targets are Republican incumbents who have been bruised by the Abramoff scandal. In California, for instance, Democrats are assailing Rep. John T. Doolittle for supporting "forced abortions and sex slavery" in the Northern Mariana Islands, which were represented by Abramoff. Democrat Charlie Brown said the attack is fair because Doolittle has refused to return contributions from supporters of the government there.

In most cases, these attacks are akin to a "Hail Mary" football pass because the chances of success are so low. An example is in Nevada, where Democrats are trying to oust GOP Rep. Jon Porter from a seat that would be very hard to flip under normal circumstances. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) -- facing his own controversy over a big profit on a land deal -- has twice raised questions about Porter's divorce. The Democratic candidate in that race, Tessa Hafen, is a former Reid aide.

Chris Cillizza of washingtonpost.com contributed to this report.

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