By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Intense voter disapproval of lawmakers' ethical lapses assisted the Democrats' capture of the House of Representatives yesterday, with seats formerly held by Republican lawmakers tainted by allegations of corruption or immoral conduct shifting to Democratic control in at least four states, according to early election returns.
Two California Republicans accused of wrongdoing also faced tough battles to keep their seats, and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) faced a stiff challenge, but it remained unclear whether those seats would fall into Democratic hands as well.
Publicity about the admitted crimes of prominent Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and admissions by Republican lawmakers from Ohio and California that they took bribes from Abramoff or others left an opening for Democratic Party leaders to cast the election as a referendum on ethical shortcomings in Washington.
Exit polling indicated that this theme resonated strongly with voters, who told a consortium of news media interviewers that they disapproved of the way Congress is handling its job (61 percent) and described "corruption and scandals in government" as either very or extremely important factors in their vote (74 percent).
Only the state of the national economy was mentioned more frequently (82 percent) as a very or extremely important issue in exit polling, based on 13,208 interviews. The issues that Republican Party leaders highlighted in their pre-election campaigning -- terrorism, immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage -- were mentioned less often in the surveys.
The impact of the Democratic campaign was particularly clear in several districts that Republicans formerly considered safe, where Democratic candidates triumphed in the wake of embarrassing personal scandals.
These included the Palm Beach, Fla., district previously held by Mark Foley, who was implicated in sexual solicitations of former House pages; the rural Pennsylvania district previously held by Don Sherwood, whose former mistress said he choked her; and the Upstate New York district previously held by John E. Sweeney, who was embarrassed by a police report that quoted his wife complaining of abuse.
The salience of corruption allegations as an election issue was also made clear in yesterday's loss by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who is the focus of an FBI investigation into whether he performed favors for foreign-controlled businesses that employed his daughter. The FBI raided his daughter's offices and home Oct. 16.
Two other districts formerly held by prominent Republicans who were forced from office by indictment and scandal -- former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas and former House Administration Committee chairman Robert W. Ney of Ohio -- also went to Democratic candidates yesterday.
The loss of Ney's congressional district was part of a Democratic political wave in that state that capitalized on the "Coingate" scandal involving the improper investment of state funds in high-risk ventures controlled by politically connected Republican businessmen.
As a result of the scandal, then-governor Bob Taft (R) pleaded no contest to four misdemeanors involving his failure to report gifts from lobbyists. The party's candidate to succeed Taft, J. Kenneth Blackwell, lost yesterday, as did Sen. Mike DeWine.
Republicans were less successful using the corruption issue as a partisan weapon, as indicated by the success yesterday of two Democrats implicated in federal probes of wrongdoing. Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.) coasted to victory, and Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.) topped a crowded field of candidates and heads to a runoff election.
Mollohan resigned from the House ethics committee in the wake of allegations of financial improprieties involving several of his friends and campaign contributors, and the FBI seized $90,000 in cash from Jefferson's freezer.
"Nobody likes dishonesty and corruption, not Republicans, not Democrats, not conservatives, not liberals," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Tuesday night on CNN. "So, it's not surprising to me that corruption is one of the top issues. We have seen that in our polling for about a year now."
The issue of corruption, Dean added, "is an issue that the Democrats have pushed very, very hard on."
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.