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updated 10/6/2006 4:09:03 PM ET 2006-10-06T20:09:03

Congressional Republicans seem to have reeled from one crisis to the next during the past two years. But as the uproar intensified this week over the advances by former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., toward underage congressional pages -- and threatened to engulf even House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., himself -- GOP members privately acknowledged that this scandal is so serious that it could prove to be a deathblow in the November elections.

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"If we don't turn this around, we face the serious threat of losing the gavel and of Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker," a House Republican committee chairman said in an interview Wednesday evening. The veteran GOP lawmaker said that he had warned his senior aides to prepare for the worst.

A member of the conservative House Republican Study Committee agreed that the Foley crisis could wipe out the GOP majority. "This could be the last thing -- the straw" that breaks the camel's back, he said in an interview. "For members who have tight races, this is just one more hurdle they have to clear." This lawmaker particularly worried that the party's conservative base will stay home in disgust on Election Day. "Social conservatives will say more should have been done," he said. "It's just going to dominate the conversation while we're gone."

Likewise, Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., said that although Republicans had hoped to spend October in their districts talking about the war on terrorism and border security, "all of these members are going to be going before editorial boards and looking for endorsements, and the first three questions are going to be about this [Foley] thing."

"The repercussions of [Foley's] horrible decisions are harming other people," added Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. "Individual members cannot control the quality of their own campaign." And McHenry conceded that his party's political prospects were already dicey. "As House Republicans this year, we have a small margin of error within which to operate," he said. "We can't have many mistakes."

After several days of withstanding some angry intraparty criticism and suggestions that he should resign because of his role in the Foley matter, Hastert held an October 5 press conferencein Illinois at which he declared, "I expect to run for speaker" in the new Congress.

"The bottom line is, I am taking responsibility for it because ultimately, the buck stops here. I'm sorry that this happened," Hastert said of Foley's advances toward underage pages. "When Republicans found out about the explicit [online] messages, Republicans dealt with it immediately, and he is gone. We are now trying to correct the problem." But it was unclear whether Hastert's statements this week, along with the investigations and other corrective steps that he has called for, will be enough for the Republicans to salvage their political prospects -- or whether the scandal will be all-consuming right up until Election Day.

Before Foley's September 29 resignation sent shock waves across Washington, Republicans believed that they had made some progress toward overcoming their problems. Since late August, President Bush had been gradually reclaiming the initiative from Democrats with a well-executed public-relations offensive on terrorism and security issues. During the last week of September, Congress finally gave approval to legislationauthorizing Bush's military tribunal program and to other key defense and homeland-security measures.

Buoyant House GOP strategists staged a Capitol ceremony on Congress's getaway day, September 29, as Republican members prepared to go home to their districts and intensify their campaigns by rolling out television ads and direct-mail blitzes. "The nation and the world still need the Congress to lead, and Republicans are meeting that need every day," Hastert said in prepared remarks.

But that mid-afternoon ceremony was disrupted by reporters demanding to know more about Foley's just-disclosed resignation. The media had no interest in the legislation creating the new military commissions. And since that Friday afternoon, virtually all discussion of GOP policy initiatives has been superseded.

The Foley revelations halted whatever momentum Bush and his Republican allies had been building. No longer able to dominate the political dialogue, Bush saw his job-approval rating -- which had been inching upward in September polls, much to the relief of GOP operatives -- fall back below 40 percent in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal and CNN pollsthat were conducted as the scandal broke. The already low public approval for congressional Republicans also dropped in several polls.

Suddenly, the tide had turned again. "We were making progress; there was some voice and lift to the Republican message," said veteran party strategist Bill Greener. "Instead this [Foley scandal] has become the content and focus of the political discussion."

Not only have Republican incumbents lost -- at least temporarily -- a favorable backdrop for their final campaign push, the Foley story is still unfolding, creating a sense of dread and uncertainty in GOP ranks. If the scandal remains Exhibit A in the Democrats' charges of GOP corruption in Washington, control of the House will likely shift, and control of the Senate could, too.

The political environment could change again before November 7, of course. But, for now, "this has created anxiety among Republican operatives and question marks for what it means," said GOP consultant Brett Bader, who is based outside of Seattle.

Why This Scandal Has Legs
Two months before the 1998 midterm elections, independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr released a reportfilled with salacious details about the sexual relationship between President Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Congress launched a formal impeachment inquiry in October, just a month before voters went to the polls.

Republicans had hoped that Clinton's misbehavior would translate into major electoral gains for their party. A confident House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., privately told GOP members days before the election that he expected a pickup of at least 10 seats. But Republicans were sorely disappointed. Voters were so unhappy at what they saw as the Republicans' partisan-driven impeachment proceedings that they actually gave Democrats a five-seat boost in the House. Gingrich was the biggest loser: He lost his speakership and resigned from Congress.

Might the unfolding Foley scandal wind up having little negative effect on Republicans come Election Day? Why do some scandals pack a wallop, while others cause barely a ripple?

Longtime Congress-watchers say that the shelf life of political scandals often depends on the overall atmospherics at the time. They point out that the state of public opinion toward Clinton and Congress during the impeachment debate was far different from the public mood today, as new details about Foley's appalling behavior continue to be reported by the minute.

"The context for Clinton was that everything else was going very well," said Duke University political scientist David Rohde. "The economy was in terrific shape, the country was not at war, and the public was pleased overall.... And the public had no illusions about Clinton."

"Today, people are negative on Bush and negative on Iraq," Rohde said. "That sets the stage for this scandal having legs. And it is inherently different. This involves, in the first place, young boys whose parents sent them to Washington to be entrusted to the care of Congress, not just Mr. Foley. A big [problem] for Republicans is that the [party] leaders knew about some of this, and the public thinks they should have known more, and that they didn't exercise due diligence."

The best political hope for today's Republicans is that Democrats will recklessly borrow a page from the GOP's impeachment playbook and, in their zeal to score political points and grab House control, end up overreaching.

In the past year, Democrats have sought to nationalize the upcoming midterm contests by bemoaning the Republican Party's "culture of corruption" and by linking all GOP candidates to Bush. Republicans have argued that they know from experience that those efforts simply won't fly.

"Back in 1998, Republicans were superimposing Bill Clinton's head on different people [in campaign ads] and everything was about Bill Clinton, about his ethics, all the things that had been happening in terms of the scandals and investigations. I am not sure that was a brilliant strategy by any means, as we saw from the results," Brian Nick, the spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an interview this summer.

If some in the GOP hope that Democrats will cross the partisan line on the Foley scandal, plenty of battle-scarred political veterans are dubious. "Unlike 1998, there is not going to be an impeachment," said Marshall Wittmann, who was in the eye of the storm as the legislative director of the Christian Coalition during the Republican revolution in 1994. "This is a story that tells itself.

"Democrats don't have to do anything. Republicans had to move the story with impeachment," Wittmann added.

"Republican candidates are having to answer for Foley and Hastert, and Democrats don't have to raise a finger. It is playing out for itself."

Veteran Democratic media consultant Bill Carrick agrees: "This issue is driving itself. Nobody has to do anything."

Indeed. This week, congressional Democratic leaders remained largely on the sidelines as the Foley scandal snowballed. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., mostly emphasized the need for the House Standards of Official Conduct (Ethics) Committee to get to the bottom of it all.

"This is appalling," Pelosi said following an October 5 economic speech at Georgetown University. "The fact that the Republican leadership in this Congress chose to protect Mark Foley for political reasons, rather than protect the children, cannot [stand]." She said that the Ethics Committee must question Republican leaders under oath. "It's not just about Speaker Hastert," Pelosi said. "This is a question about a responsibility we have to the children." The speaker-in-waiting also sought to maintain business as usual this week, by attacking Republicans for their handling of Medicare, Social Security, and the economy.

The Foley scandal has legs also because it involves the politically toxic element of hypocrisy by the GOP, the party that has long espoused the importance of family values. "No one loves a hypocrite, especially in politics," observed Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "If you preach morality and act in an immoral or illegal fashion, you pay a much greater price."

In an interview, former Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., contended that Republican voters have a much lower threshold for misbehavior than do Democrats. Salmon pointed to the 1983 scandalinvolving two lawmakers, Reps. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., and Daniel Crane, R-Ill., whom the House censured for engaging in sexual relations with 17-year-old pages.

Studds never apologized or expressed regret for having had sex with a boy, and he was re-elected six times before he retired in 1996. Crane, on the other hand, pleaded in a House floor speech for his wife and children to forgive him, but voters booted him out of office anyway in 1984.

"There weren't any Democrats that I recall who said ..., 'That guy [Studds], what a disgrace -- the guy should have gone to prison. He had sex with an underage child. He should have gone to prison.' Instead, he gets re-elected to Congress. Yet now, there is all this righteous indignation," Salmon said. "You saw what happened to Crane -- he tried to run again, but ... Republicans won't put up with it. In the Democrat Party, there seems to be a lot more tolerance for sexual indiscretion than there is in the Republican Party."

Other experts draw a sharp distinction between the misconduct involving Crane and Studds and Foley's wrongdoing. "In Crane's case, the story was about Crane. In Studds's case, the story was about Studds. In this case, the story is about the Republican leadership," Rohde said. "In the earlier cases, nobody charged that leadership knew what was going on."

The Circular Firing Squad
The once-vaunted House Republican leadership team seemed hopelessly out of control as the Foley scandal unfolded this week. "It's been desperate triage," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., a chief deputy minority whip. "The finger-pointing starts because the walls are caving in. Throwing [Hastert] onto the pyre doesn't solve their problem.... This ethos is throughout the Republican Party."

Hastert tried his best to tamp down the criticism. At an October 2 press conferencewith Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who heads the House Page Board, Hastert called the sexually explicit instant messages that Foley sent to a congressional page "vile and repulsive," asserting that Foley "duped a lot of people ... and he deceived me, too."

"No one in the Republican leadership, nor Congressman Shimkus, saw those messagesuntil last Friday, when ABC News released them to the public," Hastert said. "I repeat again: The Republican leaders of the House did not have them. We have all said so, and on the record."

But at various points during the week, House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., each directly challenged Hastert's characterization and handling of the Foley problem, both in recent days and in the past few years. Upon learning of Foley's less-explicit e-mails to pages, Reynolds said on October 2, "I did what most people would do in a workplace. I heard something: I took it to my supervisor."

Likewise, Boehner on October 3 said that he had also passed the information up the chain of command. "I believe I talked to the speaker, and he told me it had been taken care of," Boehner said. "In my position, it's in his corner. It's his responsibility."

The leadership meltdown marked the conclusion of a Congress filled with modest legislative achievements and rampant second-guessing among the Republican rank and file of Hastert and his top aides. The discontent started days after the 2004 election when, with little notice, Hastert moved to overhaul the House's ethics rules and to repeal the House GOP rule that would require a party leader to step down in case of an indictment -- a bid that was clearly designed to protect then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. That move resulted in months-long partisan bickering, until Hastert eventually backed down on both changes.

Then, after DeLay's September 2005 indictment by a Texas grand jury, Hastert created another mess when his top aides tentatively secured the agreement of House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., to take the majority leader's post on an acting basis; the speaker reversed himself under pressure from Blunt and his allies. Later, Hastert created a bipartisan tempest when he objected to the FBI raid on the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who is under investigation for bribery.

After an October 3 editorialin The Washington Times called for Hastert's resignation, the speaker worked the conservative talk-radio circuit to bolster his case. His allies took heart when two leading House conservatives -- Reps. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Joe Pitts, R-Pa. -- issued a statement endorsing the speaker's continued tenure. "Regardless of our reservations about how this matter was handled administratively, we believe Speaker Hastert is a man of integrity who has led our conference honorably and effectively throughout the past eight years," Pence and Pitts wrote.

Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., who unsuccessfully ran for majority leader earlier this year, issued a separate statement labeling demands from conservative activists for Hastert's resignation "unwarranted and fundamentally unfair." Shadegg said that those calling for the speaker to leave "are demanding that we act before the facts are known." Hastert, he added, "deserves to be treated fairly, not railroaded out of office."

These endorsements seemed less than open-ended, though, and aimed largely at getting the struggling House GOP through the November 7 election without a cataclysmic resignation. Even before the Foley scandal broke, some House Republican insiders had said that the ailing Hastert (he has diabetes and other medical problems) seemed increasingly tired and out of touch and that he was likely to step down after the election, no matter which party won the majority.

Despite the uneasiness among the GOP rank and file with the leadership's handling of the situation, some suggested that a resignation by Hastert would potentially be more harmful than beneficial. If Hastert stepped down, "you would see the Democrats declare victory. It would be, 'See, we told you so,' " said a former House GOP leadership aide. "The implied message [of Hastert's resignation] would be that there was acquiescence and this proves there was a cover-up" by the leadership.

"There's no one to step in the coach's shoes to call the shots," this source added. "There would be a leadership vacuum there. It would complicate things for members. I don't think it would provide them with the cover they need.... They don't need that distraction and don't see a natural successor."

On The Campaign Trail
As Republicans this week surveyed the political damage and plotted their next steps, some strategists emphasized the overarching need to change the subject. One tactic that Republicans could use to recover their footing is to attack on other issues. "You've got to define your opponents in a local context," Bader said. "That's the strongest part of our playbook right now: Turn the spotlight on your opponent."

In dealing with the scandal itself, GOP strategist Greener advised Republican candidates to speak sincerely and directly about the Foley incident, even if that means criticizing their own leaders. "I don't think any Republican candidate can be seen as defending the indefensible, or evading the legitimacy of this being something that concerns voters," Greener said. But this issue is not easy to handle, he cautioned: "You can't predicate what you're going to say, or do, over that which you have no control."

It didn't take embattled GOP incumbents long to start protecting themselves. Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., issued an October 3 statementannouncing that he had postponed a scheduled local fundraiser with Boehner "because he felt it was inappropriate to move ahead with it" until the public got more answers on the Foley scandal, including the role of party leaders. Any lawmaker who knew about and failed to stop the inappropriate conduct should resign, Gerlach added.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky., on October 4 citedthe growing questions surrounding Foley to explain why he canceled a fundraising event with Hastert. "The congressman takes the speaker for his word, but there are more questions that need to be answered and until they are, it's better that we don't move forward with that event," a Lewis spokesman told The Courier-Journal in Louisville.

Some Republicans may be holding out hope that the party's superior get-out-the-vote apparatus will protect their congressional majorities this year. But the scandal threatens to alienate the GOP's conservative core. Party strategists grew increasingly worried about their prospects in culturally conservative heartland districts in Indiana and Ohio, as opposed to more-upscale suburban enclaves in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

"The base was already feeling deflated, and this sort of thing gives them an excuse to sit it out," said one GOP operative involved in the party's voter-turnout strategy. "They're sitting there thinking, 'Wow, our guys are no different from their guys. They're all a bunch of slimeballs looking out for each other. My vote makes no difference.' "

Democratic candidates across the board benefit because Republicans have been thrown off their war-on-terror game plan and because a cloud of suspicion now hangs over the House GOP leadership. Democrats in swing districts of suburban moms may gain the most, especially if these challengers have a background that gives them some credibility on the Foley issue.

Patty Wetterling, the Democrat running for an open House seatin suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul who became a child-safety advocate after her son, Jacob, was abducted 17 years ago and was never found, jumped on the Foley scandal almost immediately. Barely missing a beat, an outraged Wetterling gave interviews blasting Foley's behavior and condemning House leaders for shielding him. "If this happened in a school with a teacher, and the principal was told and did nothing, he'd be fired," Wetterling told local reporters.

Wetterling's campaign was also the first to produce a TV spoton the scandal. In the ad, the candidate demanded a criminal probe of the matter and the immediate expulsion of any members involved in a cover-up. "For over a year, they knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect their own power," the ad charged.

"People were already unhappy with Washington," said Wetterling campaign manager Corey Day. "I think people in our district are reminded [by the Foley scandal] that maybe we should send someone to Washington who has fought for families for 17 years and is not a career politician." Democratic leaders deftly asked Wetterling to give the party response to the president's Saturday radio address on October 7.

Wetterling's GOP opponent, state Sen. Michele Bachmann, called the ad "opportunistic at the least." Having raised five children and 23 foster children, some of whom she said had been abused, Bachmann added in an interview, "Her ad is all about slapping up Republicans, and I believe we need to slap up bad actors."

Democrat Patricia Madrid, who is challengingRep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., is also on the air, with a commercial touting her work as the state attorney general investigating and prosecuting Internet crimes against children. Heather Brewer, Madrid's communications director, said that the spot had been planned before the Foley scandal broke, but added, "I guess the timing is what makes the ad even more significant. Parents are getting a real reality check for what the dangers are online."

Madrid is also attacking her opponent on another aspect of the scandal -- Wilson's service on the House Page Board from 2001 to 2004. "The real question here is what did Heather Wilson know. And if she says she didn't know anything, how is that possible?" Brewer asked. "This is just another example of Heather Wilson being in a position of authority and not asking the tough questions."

Wilson responded that the Foley revelations were "absolutely shocking and disgusting." As a Page Board member, she told the Albuquerque Journal, she knew nothing about any questionable relationships or communications between lawmakers and pages.

Meanwhile, Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, who is seekingto oust House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, is trying to turn her opponent's leadership position into a liability. "The [GOP] leadership was more concerned about hanging onto power than doing the right thing," said Kilroy campaign manager Scott Kozar, adding that Pryce's failure to call on Hastert to resign is "telling."

In response, Pryce sought to showcase her influence as a party leader by sending a letter to all House Republicans urging them to contact the proper authorities if they have information about inappropriate behavior by any House member or aide. And following news reports that Foley may have shown up at the congressional page dorm one night when he was intoxicated, Pryce "contacted the [House] clerk and asked her to look into this rumor," her spokesman said.

Apparently, no connection to Foley is too small to exploit. Kilroy's campaign Web site prominently featuresan article from the September issue of Columbus Monthly magazine in which Pryce cited Foley as one of her friends in Congress.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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