Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Republican campaign strategists and conservatives fear former Rep. Mark Foley’s sex scandal will depress turnout among the party’s “value voter” base in November, further complicating Republican efforts to keep control of Congress.

“A social conservative may think, ‘Well, Democrats aren’t going to represent the legislation I want to see passed, but the Republicans aren’t representing me,’ ” said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs at the Family Research Council.

“They may just decide to stay home,” according to Mr. McClusky, who said many conservative voters are rightly “disgusted.”

Bob Bennett, the veteran Ohio state Republican chairman, predicted there would be damaging political fallout from the Foley scandal, and several Republican campaign pollsters and strategists say it may give Democrats the final push they need to capture the House.

“If you think Foley doesn’t have an impact on the electorate, someone is kidding themselves,” said Mr. Bennett, whose state was pivotal in the last presidential election and has several hotly contested races, including the re-election bid of Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, which polling shows is statistically tied.

“First, we had Congressman Duke Cunningham convicted, then Rep. Bob Ney … and now Foley. And people get very upset about that. People begin to say, ‘What’s going on down there’ [in Washington].”

Republicans advising some of the top House and Senate campaigns this fall now say privately that their party, barring a political miracle, will suffer a net loss of at least 15 seats — enough to lose majority control — and probably will lose as many as 30 seats. Democrats need six seats to win control of the Senate.

“The GOP has become a walking soap opera,” said Craig Shirley, author and Republican Party consultant. “The only scandal that hasn’t been visited upon the Republicans is Paris Hilton.”

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 Republican Rep. Charles Bass in New Hampshire.

Several Democratic candidates challenged Republicans to call for the resignation of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert over his handling of Mr. Foley’s explicit messages with underage boys, as influential conservatives and the editorial page of The Washington Times already have done.

“Their willingness to look the other way during such despicable activities speaks to their character,” said Patrick Murphy, the Democratic opponent of Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, Pennsylvania Republican.

Mr. Foley resigned from the House on Friday after ABC News reported both over-friendly e-mails and lurid Internet messages he had sent to underage boys who had been congressional pages.

A survey of Republican state chairmen nationwide revealed little discontent about how their party’s House leadership has handled the scandal, calling the affair a case “of one sick individual” who has since resigned from Congress.

“As [former House Speaker] Tip O’Neill said, ‘All politics is local.’ It’s two names on a ballot and that’s the choice voters have at the end of the day,” New Jersey’s Republican Party chairman Tom Wilson said.

Phyllis Schlafly, among the conservative movement’s icons, said religious voters should follow the advice former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave to the first President George Bush when he was considering what to do about Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait: “This is no time to go wobbly, George.”

“There is too much at stake, starting with the importance of judicial nominations,” said the Eagle Forum president and a conservative not averse to public criticism of fellow Republicans.

The Rev. Wiley Drake, conservative activist and one of the vice presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, predicted the disgust among conservative voters over the Foley situation will actually propel them to the polls next month.

“I think it’s going to wake Republicans up,” he said. “I think we’ll have voters who haven’t voted in years.”

Mr. McClusky said, despite his predictions, the Family Research Council is still working hard to turn out the vote.

“I’m hoping that people don’t just swear off of politics because of a few bad apples,” he said.

The Republican Party’s conservative allies have been boiling mad over policies, from Iraq to spending and expansion of government, favored by President Bush and the Republican Congress for years, and the Foley affair only heightened the ire of most of them.

“The Republicans have become what they beheld in this town when the Democrats were in control — presiders over a culture of corruption,” said conservative icon Richard A. Viguerie, “only it far exceeds what they complained about with the Democrats and Speaker Jim Wright.”

Mr. Foley became the fourth Republican congressman so far this year to deal with scandal. Most recently, Mr. Ney of Ohio resigned his committee posts and stood down from re-election after admitting to federal bribery charges. Tom DeLay of Texas, the former majority leader, resigned in the spring over ties to casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff after he was accused of campaign finance irregularities. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California resigned and was convicted and imprisoned for bribery.

cDonald Lambro contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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