"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Cunningham, Scanlon Help Keep Republican Scandals in Public Eye
Kristin Jensen and Catherine Dodge
December 1, 2005

Dec. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Republicans hoped that a raft of scandals involving their party's lawmakers and the White House would fade from view before the 2006 elections. Then along came Randy ``Duke'' Cunningham and Michael Scanlon.

Cunningham, the California congressman who resigned this week after admitting that he took $2.4 million in bribes, and Scanlon, a former colleague of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff who pleaded guilty last week to conspiring to corrupt public officials, are the latest examples of what Democrats call "the culture of corruption" in Washington -- and what they hope will propel them to victory at the polls next year.

"This is not something that's going to go away soon or can be written off as one bad apple," said Amy Walter, House editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report, which analyzes congressional races.

Republicans say their adversaries don't seem to be gaining an advantage in polls, and that voters usually don't blame their own lawmaker for scandals in which they are not involved. "I don't know of any member of Congress who's ever lost because of something some other member did," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democrats plan to test that proposition. They've been sending e-mails to supporters for months decrying what they call Republican ethical transgressions, and running print and radio ads in targeted districts, such as those represented by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- for whom Scanlon used to work -- and, before he resigned, Cunningham.

Campaign Theme

The Democrats plan to campaign on the theme that ethics scandals have a direct impact on voters because the public is losing out to special interests, said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Our whole argument is there's a cost to this corruption, and you are paying for it," he said.

Some Republicans, such as Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona, are worried that this theme will gain traction with voters.

Individual indiscretions become dangerous when they are perceived as a symptom of a larger problem, Flake said. He's particularly concerned about scandals such as the one that engulfed Cunningham, 63, because it suggests that lobbyists have too much sway.

"We can't afford to be portrayed as `K Street conservatives,"' Flake said, referring to the Washington area that is home to many lobbying firms and trade groups. "That's what we're looking like."

Range of Cases

The cases that concern him and others include the White House as well as Capitol Hill. Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis Libby, was indicted on perjury charges in October. DeLay, a Texas Republican, stepped down from his leadership post in September after being indicted in his home state of Texas in a campaign-fundraising abuse case.

In September, the Securities and Exchange Commission authorized a formal investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's sale of shares of HCA Inc., a Nashville, Tennessee-based hospital chain. Frist's HCA shares, held in a Senate-approved blind trust, were sold shortly before the company issued an earnings estimate that failed to meet analysts' forecasts.

"There isn't a week that goes by that the Republicans aren't involved in an arraignment, an arrest, a subpoena or an indictment," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

With President George W. Bush and Congress both suffering from near-record-low approval ratings, analysts are drawing comparisons to scandals such as Watergate, which led to an influx of Democrats in the 1974 elections, and the series of ethical controversies involving Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s that helped the Republicans win control of the House of Representatives in 1994.

`Tremendous Opportunity'

Pollster John Zogby sees a "tremendous opportunity" for the Democrats, while adding that they must do more than just complain about corruption to capitalize on it. He notes that the Republicans won in 1994 by promising specific reforms. "It's incumbent on the Democrats to come up with a similar cohesive message, and so far you're not seeing that," said Zogby, president of Utica, New York-based Zogby International.

Democrats hold 202 of the House's 435 seats and would need 218 to control the chamber. Redistricting after the 2000 Census made their task more difficult, as the number of competitive seats decreased, said Walter of the Cook Political Report.

Republicans in states that voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 might be most at risk, said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Washington-based Main Street Republican Partnership. The group says it takes a "centrist" approach to governing and has taken on battles such as removing special-interest projects from appropriations bills.

Swing Districts

"We are concerned because it's the men and women of Main Street who are primarily in swing districts," she said. "I don't know if Republicans will lose power in the House, but Democrats certainly could cut into that majority."

One of the biggest concerns for Republicans is the investigation of Abramoff, 46, who had close ties to DeLay and other party leaders. In Scanlon's plea agreement, prosecutors said Scanlon, 35, and Abramoff attempted to bribe lawmakers, including an unidentified "Representative #1." The lawyer for Representative Robert Ney, 51, an Ohio Republican, has confirmed that he is the lawmaker in question.

Abramoff, Scanlon and their lobbying clients combined to give campaign money to a third of the members of Congress between 2001 and 2004.

Scanlon Cooperating

Scanlon is cooperating with investigators, and the next hearing in his case won't take place until March 1. Ney announced Nov. 4 that he had received a subpoena for documents as part of the investigation.

The impact of scandals on the 2006 election may depend on how many lawmakers decide to retire, Walter said. An exodus by Republicans would create an obvious opportunity for Democrats, she said.

There's also a chance that voters will opt for "outsider" candidates unconnected to Washington, she said. In that case, the candidate's party might not matter, unless Democrats can persuade voters that Republicans as a group are corrupt, she said.

"Republicans are in power, and midterm elections are a referendum on power," Walter said. "On the other hand, voters right now are feeling pessimistic about both parties. It's not that Democrats are better-liked. It's that they are less disliked. That's not something you can necessarily take through the election."

To contact the reporters on this story:
Kristin Jensen in Washington  at kjensen@bloomberg.net;
Catherine Dodge in Washington  cdodge1@bloomberg.net