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Will scandals damage GOP election prospects?
Scripps Howard News Service


October 01, 2005

A scandal checklist
Scripps Howard News Service

WASHINGTON -- It appears that scandal in Washington has become that rarest of all political animals - a nonpartisan affair.

It was former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich who asserted in 1994 that Congress had become a "corrupt institution" after 40 years of Democratic control. He led the political fight that resulted in the GOP grabbing control of both the House and Senate - a status it retains to this day.

Indeed, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, majority Democrats encountered several ethical troubles, including one that forced former House Speaker Jim Wright to step down. But the past few months have firmly established that the Democrats aren't the only party that can be tainted by scandal and face the prospect of paying a price on Election Day.

Here's a short list of some of the recent problems bedeviling Republicans.

- Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist, pondering a presidential run in 2008, ordered the blind trust handling his substantial assets to sell all his shares of HCA, his family's hospital company, in June. Just two weeks after the sale was complete, HCA reported lower-than-expected earnings for the second quarter of 2005, forcing a drop in the share price and eliciting whispers that Frist benefited from insider information. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York are investigating.

- Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, a Vietnam War hero, already has announced he will not seek re-election in 2006 after finding himself in hot water on a number of fronts. In 2003, Cunningham sold his Del Mar-area residence to Mitchell Wade, a defense contractor, for what many consider an inflated price - $1.675 million. Wade, who is with MZM Inc., resold the house seven months later at a $700,000 loss. Cunningham serves on the House Appropriations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence, panels that oversee government dealings with MZM.

- House Republican Leader Tom DeLay, long a target of Democrats drained by his hardball political tactics, was indicted Wednesday by a Travis County, Texas, grand jury in a campaign money-laundering scheme. Under Texas law, corporations are prohibited from making contributions to individual political campaigns. The grand jury maintains that a group founded by DeLay, Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, dispatched about $190,000 in corporate funds to the Republican National Committee in Washington. The RNC then returned a like amount of money that was distributed among Texas GOP legislative candidates.

- Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio has hired a criminal defense lawyer in reaction to a federal investigation into the dealings of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a man who also maintains close ties with DeLay. Newsweek reported that Abramoff planned a golf excursion to Scotland as a favor for the chairman of the House Administration Committee. Ney supported legislation that would help Abramoff's client, the Tigua tribe of Texas, reopen a casino. It is against House ethics rules for members to take trips paid for by lobbyists.

- The Republican-controlled White House also finds itself in the hot seat. David Safavian, who served as President Bush's chief procurement officer, resigned in early September and was arrested a few days later by federal authorities for lying to investigators probing a web of Abramoff activities.

- And then there is the brouhaha that remains the focus of conversation on the Washington cocktail party circuit - who within the administration revealed the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Wilson to the media? A federal grand jury is looking into it. Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper said he got the dirt from Karl Rove, the president's political guru. Judith Miller of The New York Times, who went to jail for contempt of court for refusing to reveal her source, now acknowledges she was told by Scooter Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

WASHINGTON - Republicans have maintained control of both Congress and the White House for five years, but the party has been put on edge by a run of adversity - from ethical questions dogging its leaders to an apparent public disaffection with the country's overall direction.

Over the past week, House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas was indicted for violating his state's campaign finance laws, and Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee learned that he is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible insider trading violations.

Meanwhile, President Bush is reeling from negative public reaction to the economy, the war in Iraq and the federal government's reaction to the hell wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Democrats hope the GOP tribulations will damage Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections. Republicans lost big in 1976 after the political avalanche that was Watergate, and Democrats lost control of the House in 1994 when back-bench Republicans, led by soon-to-be Speaker Newt Gingrich, made stick charges that Democrats were maintaining a "corrupt institution."

But times change. In 1976 and 1994, during less partisan times, dozens of congressional seats were competitive and could conceivably change hands election after election.

That no longer is the case. Drawing the lines of congressional districts has become a fine art, intended for the most part to provide either a safe haven for incumbents or an opportunity for the party in power - the Republicans in this case.

The current breakdown shows 231 Republicans in the House compared to 202 Democrats with one independent, Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who usually votes with the Democrats. Democrats would have to pick up 15 seats to regain the majority.

Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, maintains that to this point, Democrats have failed to field enough top-notch contenders to make a difference, although the recruiting season has not yet come to a close. Some analysts see as few as 35 seats as legitimately competitive this cycle.

In the Senate, six seats need to change hands for Democrats to take control. Despite the recent spate of negative news, only two Republican incumbents - Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sen. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island - appear to face major hurdles.

Still, polls suggest the American public has tired of the Republican monopoly on government. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, conducted Sept. 27-28, shows 40 percent believes the country would be better served by a Democrat victory next year, while only 32 percent would feel better with Republicans in control.

Democracy Corps, a pro-Democrat organization founded by two political heavy hitters - James Carville and pollster Stan Greenburg - said a survey it conducted shows 60 percent of the public wants the country to go in a "significantly different direction than Bush." Carville and Greenburg maintain the GOP troubles have more to do with discontent over Bush than concerns about the ethics of Frist and DeLay.

"This is about George Bush, though voters are taking out their discontent on the Republicans in Congress," they said.

Carville and Greenburg say undecided voters at this juncture are more willing to listen to Democratic entreaties than Republican, and that most of these "winnable" voters are women - all factors that point to Democratic success.

Despite his indictment, DeLay remains favored to retain his congressional seat in 2006, though his future within the House GOP leadership is clouded. He has no aspirations for higher office and Bush, who has yet to reach even the midway point of his second term, never has to worry about standing for the public's approval again.

That means the man with potentially the most to lose is Frist, who already has said he doesn't intend to seek re-election to his Tennessee seat and is pondering a campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Early polls showed him looking in from the outside and the latest round of bad news is unlikely to enhance his possibilities.



Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)

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