By Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 2, 2006
Indictments, investigations and allegations of wrongdoing have helped put at least 15 Republican House seats in jeopardy, enough to swing control to the Democrats on Tuesday even before the larger issues of war, economic unease and President Bush are invoked.
With just five days left before Election Day, allegations are springing up like brushfires. Four GOP House seats have been tarred by lobbyist Jack Abramoff's influence-peddling scandal. Five have been adversely affected by then-Rep. Mark Foley's unseemly contacts with teenage male House pages. The remaining half a dozen or so could turn on controversies including offshore tax dodging, sexual misconduct and shady land deals.
Not since the House bank check-kiting scandal of the early 1990s have so many seats been affected by scandals, and not since the Abscam bribery cases of the 1970s have the charges been so serious. But this year's combination of breadth and severity may be unprecedented, suggested Julian E. Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University.
For more than a year, Democrats have tried to gain political advantage from what they called "a culture of corruption" in Republican-controlled Washington. Republican campaign officials insist the theme has not caught on with the public, but even they concede that many individual races have been hit hard.
"So many different kinds of scandals going on at the same time, that's pretty unique," Zelizer said. "There were scandals throughout the '70s, multiple scandals, but the number of stories now are almost overwhelming."
At least nine GOP seats have been affected by scandals and are highly vulnerable to Democratic takeover next week. Foley's abrupt resignation has jeopardized a Florida House district that had been on no one's radar screen. Under indictment and amid a swirl of ethics investigations, former House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) resigned from Congress earlier this year, forcing Republicans to mount a long-shot write-in campaign for their chosen candidate. Rep. Robert W. Ney's guilty plea last month on corruption charges still hangs over the Ohio campaign of his would-be Republican successor, Joy Padgett, especially because Ney still has not resigned from Congress.
The GOP has all but abandoned longtime Rep. Curt Weldon (Pa.), as federal investigators examine charges that he steered lobbying contracts to his daughter. Weldon went on television yesterday with an ad featuring actors pleading, "Would you give a friend the benefit of the doubt? . . . Today, Curt Weldon needs our support."
Republican campaign strategists fear they have also lost the seat of Rep. Don Sherwood (Pa.), who has been dogged by the settlement of a lawsuit filed by a mistress who charged that Sherwood had throttled her.
Congress watchers once saw the swing seat of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) as a missed opportunity for Democrats. But now, as the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix examines his role in a land deal for a business partner and political benefactor, Renzi's race with political neophyte Ellen Simon (D) has tightened.
Farther west, Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) has had to contend with charges lodged last month by a longtime former aide, Jim Shepard, that the lawmaker made dozens of illegal fundraising calls from his congressional offices. And two reliably Republican districts in California are under assault by Democrats because Reps. Richard W. Pombo and John T. Doolittle have been linked to Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.
Beyond those nine jeopardized GOP seats, four other Republicans have been tainted by the Foley page scandal. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.) chose to issue a public apology after he admitted that he had known about inappropriate contact between Foley and a former page this spring. Democrats have repeatedly hit Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), the House Republican Conference chairman, for inaction on the Foley matter. And Democrats have tried to hold two former members of the Page Board, Reps. Sue W. Kelly (N.Y.) and Heather A. Wilson (N.M.), accountable for Foley's actions.
Meanwhile, new allegations continue to spring up. Vern Buchanan, a Republican running for the Florida seat vacated by Rep. Katherine Harris (R), was the target of local media reports this week detailing his use of business entities in Caribbean tax havens to reduce levies on his auto dealerships. The Albany Times Union published an article yesterday charging that the wife of Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) called police late last year to report that her husband was "knocking her around" during a late-night argument.
And Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who made his name pushing campaign finance changes and governance reforms, was confronted with media reports alleging that a 2003 trip to Qatar -- partly funded by a group loosely tied to Abramoff -- had not been properly disclosed.
"The corruption issue plays in two ways: It contributes to the sour mood of the country and to the low job approval of Congress, and it particularly plays in races directly touched by allegations of scandal," said Republican pollster Whit Ayers. "And in those races, it plays a significant role."
House Democrats have had to deal with investigations of their own, involving Reps. William J. Jefferson (La.), Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.) and Jane Harman (Calif.), but none of those cases have put Democratic seats in jeopardy.
In the Senate, a federal inquiry into Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and his ties to a nonprofit community agency that paid him more than $300,000 in rent while receiving millions of dollars in federal assistance has provided his Republican challenger with a strong issue and has kept that race close. But the seat of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) may be in even more jeopardy, primarily because of Burns's ties to Abramoff.
Recent polling suggests that the issue of corruption is beginning to stick. A CNN poll last month found that "half of all Americans believe most members of Congress are corrupt" and that "more than a third think their own representative is crooked."
And where the issue has hit directly, Democrats and their allies have been playing up charges to the hilt. Just yesterday, Christine Jennings, the Florida Democrat running for Harris's House seat, held a news conference to attack Buchanan's alleged offshore tax dodges.
Even the most peripheral contact with a scandal has not gone unnoticed. "Those that knew got to go," Albuquerque's Democratic mayor, Martin J. Chavez, thundered at a rally last month against New Mexico's Wilson, citing her role on the Page Board during Foley's misconduct. "Those that didn't know need to explain why they didn't."