Democrats took their first formal step yesterday toward trying to nationalize next year's midterm House elections around the issue of ethics, buying ads in the local papers of six Republican lawmakers calling on them to "start working for us" instead of special interests.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spending $36,000 on the ads -- a virtually meaningless sum, by itself -- but calls it the beginning of a campaign to fuel an anti-incumbent fever like the one that swept its party out in 1994.
"There's a question about the conduct and the culture that goes beyond the individuals," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the committee's chairman. "The speaker's gavel is supposed to open the people's house, not the auction house."
Even White House officials have begun to fret about the large number of senior Republicans being tied to questionable travel and relationships with lobbyists. On Friday, federal agents raided the San Diego area home of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, one of the ad targets. The search followed news reports that he had sold a house to a defense contractor, who immediately put it back up for sale and took a huge loss.
Republicans contend that Democrats are making the mistake the GOP did in 1998, when the party made its main message about President Bill Clinton instead of a positive agenda. Republicans say Democrats face numerous ethical issues of their own. Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, asserted that Democrats are "stepping into their own Venus' flytrap."
The ads are customized for each district, with a large photo of a lawmaker accompanied by critical headlines. The one in the Fort Bend Sun, which circulates in the House majority leader's suburban Houston district, asks, "What's Happened to Tom DeLay?"
An ad in two Ohio papers singles out the House Administration Committee chairman by blaring: "Bob Ney's work in Congress is generating headlines . . . on his ties to lobbyists, his foreign trips, and his fight for Indian casinos."
Political consultants agree that a message needs to be repeated so that voters can absorb it. But Democrats have struggled to recruit candidates and hope the ads will help generate an aura of vulnerability around some GOP leaders.
Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, called the ads "a waste of money." "Clearly, their intention is more to draw headlines inside the Beltway than to move votes," Forti said.
Shannon Flaherty, DeLay's spokeswoman, said Democrats are "relying on a strategy of smear tactics and personal attacks in a feeble attempt to win back seats."
The other targets are House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (Calif.), Rep. Rob Simmons (Conn.) and Rep. Charles H. Taylor (N.C.).