Video: GOP fears fallout

updated 10/4/2006 8:49:22 AM ET 2006-10-04T12:49:22

Democratic candidates seized on a disgraced congressman's explicit messages with underage boys — and House Republican leaders' handling of the situation — to argue that voters should toss the GOP from power.

Their Republican rivals, in turn, are distancing themselves from former Republican Rep. Mark Foley.

"His unspeakable behavior should subject him to the strongest punishment under the law," Republican Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, in a tight re-election race in Pennsylvania, said in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Like a growing number of Democrats, Fitzpatrick's opponent, Patrick Murphy, called for Hastert's resignation, and challenged the GOP incumbent to seek the same. "Their willingness to look the other way during such despicable activities speaks to their character," Murphy said of House leaders.

Foley's abrupt resignation Friday — as reports surfaced that he had written salacious instant messages to teenage boys who once worked as House pages — shifted the focus of congressional races five weeks before midterm elections.

Disclosures continued Tuesday when Foley's attorney, David Roth, announced in West Palm Beach, Fla., that his client is gay and was molested between the ages 13 and 15 by a clergyman.

Scandal takes center stage
In the days since Foley resigned, talk of national security and the Iraq war has been replaced by the scandal — for Republicans and Democrats. Control of Congress is at stake, with Democrats needing to gain 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate to take control after a dozen years of Republican rule.

"I'm hopeful that five weeks out, that it's a news story for a week or so and then it will die down," said Ted Welch, a Republican fundraiser in Nashville, Tenn., a state with a hard-fought Senate race. Welch said the GOP base in Tennessee sees the Foley matter "as just another mistake that Republicans have made, not dealing with it when they first learned of it."

Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr., faces Republican Bob Corker to replace retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist in the GOP-leaning state, and the party's base voters are crucial to Republicans keeping the seat.

‘We have a story to tell,’ Hastert says
Hastert said the party won't be deterred in trying to argue for maintaining congressional control.

Video: Scarborough discusses scandal "We have a story to tell and the Democrats ... in my view have put this thing forward to try to block us from telling our story, to try to put us on defense," the speaker said in a radio interview with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

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In races across the country, Democrats are working to make their case for change by arguing that the Foley scandal is symbolic of a Republican Party in power too long.

"Whether it's knowledge of intolerable conduct within the House or warnings about the war in Iraq, this Congress just doesn't want to face reality, much less hold anyone accountable. They'll say and do anything to hold onto power," said Paul Hodes, a Democrat challenging GOP Rep. Charlie Bass in New Hampshire.

Said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: "They're shaking in their boots because they didn't tell us. They're scared to death because they didn't tell us, because it's totally their responsibility. They know it and they admit it."

For GOP, an uncomfortable position
Democrats also aim to put Republican candidates in an uncomfortable position, calling on them not only to denounce Foley but join in saying that GOP leaders who knew about the contact between the then-congressman and former pages should resign. They also are pressuring their GOP rivals to return or donate money he contributed to their campaigns, and in at least one case, Democrats are preparing to run ads on the matter.

"It shocks the conscience. Congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children," Patty Wetterling, the Democratic candidate for a Minnesota House seat, says in the script of a television ad. Wetterling's son disappeared 17 years ago.

Nevermind that Hastert or other Republican leaders dispute Democratic accusations of a cover-up. Roth said Tuesday that his client is not a pedophile and "never attempted to have sexual contact with a minor" and "never had sexual contact with a minor."

Wetterling's opponent for an open seat in Minnesota, state Sen. Michele Bachmann, has called the messages between Foley and teens "an obscene breach of trust."

Tim Babcock, a longtime Republican activist who served as Montana's governor in the 1960s, expressed confidence that the Foley matter would have little affect among rank-and-file Republicans in his state. "They'll recognize in the end that this is just a political ploy the Democrats are just trying to build up," Babcock said.

2006 key racesNevertheless, as the scandal roils the House GOP leadership in Washington, Republican congressional candidates across the country are fending off questions about their own affiliations with Foley and seeking to minimize the personal political fallout.

A growing number of Republicans have returned or donated money they received from Foley to charities, and many are denouncing his actions as disgusting and outrageous.

Running for an open seat in New York, Republican candidate Ray Meier said investigations into Foley's conduct should pay special attention "to who knew about Foley's behavior, when they knew, and why it took so long for these matters to be confronted and for action to be taken."

As the Foley scandal unfolded Monday, Rep. Jim Gerlach, a Republican in a tough re-election fight in Pennsylvania, postponed a fundraiser that had been scheduled with House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, because Gerlach "felt it was inappropriate to move ahead with it as planned."

Turning the tables?
While the Foley messages have put Republicans on the defensive, two Connecticut incumbents sought to turn the tables are their Democratic opponents, accusing them of being weak on anti-sexual predator laws.

Rep. Nancy Johnson singled out a 1999 vote by her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Chris Murphy, opposing a landlord-tenant bill that would have made it difficult for convicted sex-offenders to live in public housing. Murphy said he voted against the legislation because it gave landlords greater authority to evict poor families.

Rep. Rob Simmons dug up a 1994 vote by his challenger, former state Rep. Joe Courtney, opposing a provision requiring sex offenders to register with local police departments. Courtney aides said he opposed it because it did not permit authorities to make the information public. Courtney ultimately voted for the provision as part of a broader bill creating a DNA data bank for sex offenders.

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