Foley Scandal Injects Doubt into House Races

Washington observers are scouring the political landscape to determine whether the Mark Foley scandal is having any effect on the upcoming midterm elections. It's too early too tell if it will change the outcome of any House races, but it is making a lot of people nervous.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's bring in two members of our political brain trust. Last week, NPR's Ken Rudin and Mara Liasson told us about everything from Iraq to Senator George Allen's ancestry. And now after all the news of this week, we are, with some trepidation, opening their microphones again. Good morning to you both.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson first. Has the announcement of investigations solved this problem for Republicans?

LIASSON: Well, Republicans certainly hope so. At least it gives them an answer when Democrats call on them to demand that they call on Speaker Hastert to resign. They can say it's being investigated. And as one Republican strategist said to me this week, every day that the subject was Foley instead of the war on terror was a bad day for Republicans. And I think it's…

INSKEEP: Was?

LIASSON: Was - well, it is.

INSKEEP: Is every day still going to be?

LIASSON: It is (unintelligible) and wanted to try to get the subject off of that. The biggest danger for Republicans was that this further demoralized their base voters, including religious conservatives who are appalled that the party of family values would allow this to happen. Now Republicans were already nervous about losing the majority. You know, Democrats need 15 seats to win control of the House. And I would say that a month ago that looked like a higher hurdle for Democrats than it does today.

And we have seen some polling - not specific questions about Foley. But The Wall Street Journal poll did ask this week: Has what you've heard over the last few weeks made you more or less likely favorable to keeping Republicans in the majority? Forty one to 18 percent said less favorable to the Republicans. Thirty four to 23 percent more favorable to Democrats.

INSKEEP: Well, that's national. Of course it all matters what in individual districts and individual states. So what's happening where, Ken Rudin? Where's it having an effect?

RUDIN: Well, clearly in Mark Foley's district in southern Florida. Mark Foley's name remains on the ballot. So for the new Republican nominee to win that seat, he's going to have to tell the voters, please, vote for Mark Foley. I mean, yikes! That's not an easy thing.

Tom Reynolds is the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He's from Buffalo, New York. He's part of the leadership who may or may not have known about the Mark Foley story earlier, so he's under a lot of pressure there.

Many Democratic candidates around the country are demanding of their Republican opponents, you should demand for Speaker Hastert's resignation. Where do you stand on this? And there's a new ad being run in Minnesota by Patty Wetterling, of which we have a copy here. I'd like to play a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: It shocks the conscience: Congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest…

RUDIN: I mean Patty Wetterling is an interesting case. Sixteen years ago, her 11-year-old son was abducted and has never been found. And that issue is certainly resonating - the issue of sexual predators and preying on young children plays in that Minnesota district. It's almost like the Republicans wish that we could talk about Iraq again.

INSKEEP: Can we Truth Squad that ad very briefly? Have Republican leaders admitted covering up?

RUDIN: No, absolutely not. And a matter of fact, a lot of Democrats around the country are saying that the Republicans are part of this cover up, admitting to a cover up, but of course that's not the case.

INSKEEP: You know - for both of you - Lanny Davis, former adviser to President Clinton, has said a number of things about this. One of them is that Democrats can go too far, they could blow this political opportunity by trying to exploit it too nakedly.

LIASSON: Well, sure. That's the case with any kind of negative or attack ad that you're going to run. But don't forget, the Democrats aren't running a national campaign around the Foley scandal. These are happening in specific districts; each challenger is going to make the decision on what kind of ads to run.

But don't forget, we are in the final stretch here. These attack ads are running fast and furious from both sides and there's not a whole lot of time for people to step back and parse every one of them.

INSKEEP: Well, now last week we asked if Democrats had a chance to win control of the Senate. You said their chances seemed to be improving. Let's go to the House of Representatives now. Will Democrats take over the House?

RUDIN: Well, you know, as Mara said, you know, the Democrats only need 15. They are very close. But again, if only a couple of races determine whether Nancy Pelosi's the next speaker, a scandal like this, if it means two or three additional seats, it could push them over. But again, a month, five weeks from now is a long time.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson?

LIASSON: Yeah, you know, the big question of this entire election to me has been which force was going to stronger. You've got on one side this wave of anti-incumbent, anti-Republican, anti-war sentiment. On the other side you have the structural advantages that the Republican majority have erected, like redistricting, like financial advantages - they have much more money - and a superior get-out-the-vote organization.

So you have this huge wave and then you have all of the mighty fortress that the Republicans have built for themselves. And the question was, would the wave get big enough to wash over all of those (unintelligible)?

RUDIN: (Unintelligible).

LIASSON: I think this refreshes the wave. I'm not going to make a prediction about whether it's big enough to sweep away 15 seats, but I think this week the wave got stronger.

INSKEEP: Ken Rudin, do you want to be the one to say only time will tell?

RUDIN: I think you just said that.

INSKEEP: Okay, Ken Rudin, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's NPR's political editor. And, Mara Liasson, national political correspondent, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And Ken Rudin writes the Political Junkie column at npr.org. By the way, a new poll suggests the page scandal is not directly hurting Republicans. The Pew Research Center survey finds no big change in voter preferences since the scandal broke. That's the good news for Republicans.

The good news for Democrats is the poll finds they are still leading. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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