By Andrew Claster
The Foley scandal may be only the latest in a series afflicting the Republicans, but it could have a greater impact on the 2006 election than the Abramoff, Plame and DeLay scandals that had already wounded the GOP.
THE STATE OF THE UNION IS ANGRY
Even pre-Foley, voters were angry and ready for change. Net Congressional approval (approval minus disapproval) has been negative 30 or worse in most major polls since March, and now stands at negative 42 in the latest AP/Ipsos poll.
President Bush’s approval, having recovered briefly to over 40% in September, is now back in the 30s. The primary reasons for the latest drop appear to be the National Intelligence Estimate noting that the Iraq war has made the US less safe, together with the Administration’s support for Dennis Hastert in light of the Foley scandal.
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ double-digit lead in the generic Congressional ballot is holding steady in October for the first time in several disappointing cycles. Crucially, the Democrats lead by double digits even in polls that survey only likely voters, as opposed to all registered voters.
2006 is the Democrats’ best opportunity to retake control of Congress since the Republicans put them out of power in 1994.
The nature of the Foley scandal makes it particularly difficult for the Republicans to resort to their traditional pre-election attacks on moral values to turn swing voters and mobilize their base. Congressional Republicans are seen as having placed partisan politics ahead of the welfare of the adolescents in their care.
As a result, the support of married parents, a key Republican constituency in recent elections, is now in jeopardy. And efforts to turn out Christian conservatives for the Republicans will likely be less successful in this environment.
Worse for the GOP, the timing of this scandal, on top of all the others, gives them little time to address the matter and move on to other subjects, particularly if there are new revelations between now and November 7.
Informed months ago of Foley’s inappropriate communications with an underage page, the GOP leadership chose not to open a full investigation. Apparently, based on a conversation with the boy’s parents, House leaders calculated the matter should and could be kept quiet.
They ignored the possibility, even the likelihood, that Foley presented a threat to other pages, that he might have had inappropriate communications or contact with other pages, or that this evidence might find its way into the hands of the media, which takes its duty to educate the public particularly seriously when sex is involved.
In this role, the media have not disappointed: 78% of voters are aware of the Foley scandal in the latest TIME poll. By contrast, only 57% were aware of the Abramoff scandal in a January Fox poll.
As a result, the Democrats now lead the Republicans by 6 points on moral values in the latest Newsweek poll, a remarkable reversal from the previous month, when Republicans led Democrats by 13 points on this question.
And because Republican voters are more likely to say they care most about “moral values” when casting their votes, a sex scandal involving a minor can be particularly devastating for GOP turnout. In the latest CBS/New York Times poll, 42% of Republicans said they are less enthusiastic about voting this year than usual -– up from 33% in September.
In addition to helping Democrats and hurting Republicans nationally, there are several specific races where ethics issues could affect the result, and therefore, potentially, control of Congress.
REPUBLICANS UNDER FIRE
Florida 16 – Republican Mark Foley’s late resignation means that his name remains on the ballot. Foley’s votes will be awarded to his replacement, state Representative Joe Negron, but Democrat Tim Mahoney seems likely to win a seat that Democrats had little hope for just a couple weeks ago.
New York 26 – Republican Tom Reynolds’ involvement in the Foley scandal may cost him his seat in Congress. The race was already a tough one for him – he’s running against Jack Davis, a self-funded millionaire who won 44% of the vote two years ago. The remarkable weakness of this year’s statewide GOP ticket in New York could compound Reynolds’ troubles by depressing Republican turnout even further.
Texas 22 – In the seat Tom DeLay was forced to give up, Democrat Nick Lampson has a strong lead. The GOP isn’t helped by the fact that DeLay’s name is still on the ballot, forcing supporters of Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs to write in her name.
Montana Senate – Republican Conrad Burns’ connection to the Abramoff scandal has made this seat, in which Burns won re-election with only 51% six years ago, a top Democratic target. Democrat Jon Tester maintains a narrow but consistent lead.
When it comes to corruption, the Ohio GOP is in a class of its own. Not only did Governor Taft’s approval rating drop into single digits last year after a scandal involving investment of public funds in rare coins, but Bob Ney’s guilty plea to Abramoff-related charges has further tarnished the party’s image statewide, affecting even those Republicans who have not been directly implicated in either scandal.
Ohio 18 – Bob Ney’s involvement in the Abramoff scandal has given a leg up to Zack Space, the Democrat taking on Ney’s replacement on the ballot, state Senator Joy Padgett.
Ohio Senate – Republican incumbent Mike DeWine is doing his best to distance himself from the Bush Administration, GOP House leaders and the Ohio Republican Party, but it may not be enough. Sherrod Brown retains a narrow lead.
Ohio Governor – Democrat Ted Strickland has a double-digit lead over Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. Many voters still harbor hard feelings towards Blackwell over his 2004 decision not to provide more polling stations in a presidential election where Ohio was crucial and high turnout was anticipated. Many blamed Blackwell’s negligence–as the most charitable might put it–for the long waiting lines, especially in urban neighborhoods dominated by minority voters.
DEMOCRATS WEATHERING THE STORM
In the current political environment, Democrats who have been touched by scandal seem likely to hold on to their seats, in part because they were easier to defend in the first place.
Louisiana 02 – William Jefferson is likely to hold this seat, even in the face of a bribery scandal. In his latest FEC filing, Jefferson reported more than $300,000 cash on hand. No word on how much of this is being stored in his freezer.
West Virginia 01 – Alan Mollohan has given up his seat on the House Ethics Committee, but seems likely to win re-election in spite of a federal investigation into allegations that he funneled money to non-profit organizations to which he was connected and thereby managed to enrich himself by several million dollars.
VOTING FOR CHANGE
Voters’ appetite for change in Congress has not been this strong since 1994 when the Republicans won control of both houses and gained 52 seats in the House of Representatives alone.
This year, both houses are again in play, and Democrats stand to make major gains. But a 52-seat swing is unlikely this time. First, current district lines reflect more sophisticated and effective gerrymandering techniques than in 1994. Second, in 1994, Democrats were defending many Southern seats through incumbency advantage that had been trending Republican for decades. The 1994 election dislodged many Southern Democrats from seats that quickly became solid Republican seats. No such mismatch between districts’ partisan leaning and the party of the incumbent representative affects a large number of seats in 2006.
This time, Democrats need to win 15 seats to take control of the House and 6 seats to win control of the Senate.
If Democrats do win a majority, they will do so with a mandate from voters to address corruption. We can expect a full investigation of the Foley affair, new efforts to curb lobbyist influence, and new investigations of the relationship between lobbyist influence and some of the Bush Administration’s questionable decisions on energy, environmental protection and military procurement.
In Congressional races, ethics and corruption often have little impact beyond the affected incumbents’ races. But this cycle is different. First, because of the number of scandals and their varied nature — from sex, child endangerment and a possible cover-up to influence-peddling affecting the highest reaches of the majority party’s Congressional leadership. This suggests an endemic problem — not one which can be easily blamed on a couple of bad apples. Second, these scandals have greater impact because they come at a time of exceptionally low approval for the Administration’s policies.
In almost every cycle since 1994, Democrats have had good reason to think the next election would be the one in which they retook control of Congress. But 2006 is the first time that the numbers have looked this promising as late as mid-October. A lot can happen in just three weeks, but if current numbers hold until November 7, the Democrats will take control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years.
Andrew Claster is a Vice President with Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates working on Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s re-election campaign. Prior to joining PSB, Andrew worked for the World Bank. Andrew has a Master’s degree in Economics from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Yale University. He studied European economic and political integration at the University of Barcelona, Spain.