Some Republicans Air Their Own Foley Ads

With the 2006 midterm elections only weeks away, audiences are being inundated with political ads. The growing scandal in the House has forced a number of Republicans to explain their side of the Mark Foley story in TV ads. It's a risky strategy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And here's an effort to limit the political damage from the Foley scandal. Some House Republicans have debuted new TV ads explaining their side of the story. Experts say drawing any extra attention to the Foley issue is a gamble that some Republican candidates are now willing to take.

NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK: Apologizing is almost never fun, even under the best of circumstances. But imagine spending $200,000 to tell the voters of your district that you messed up.

Republican Tom Reynolds of New York knows how it feels because that's how he spent last weekend.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Representative TOM REYNOLDS (Republican, New York): This spring I was told about odd but not explicit e-mails from Mark Foley. Even though I never saw the e-mails, I reported what I'd been told.

BURBANK: In the TV spot, a visibly humbled Reynolds takes the voters of Western New York state through his version of events...

(Soundbite of political ad)

Rep. REYNOLDS: Later, worse e-mails were revealed, so I forced him to resign.

BURBANK: ...before finally issuing his mea culpa.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Rep. REYNOLDS: I'm disappointed I didn't catch his lies before. For that, I am sorry.

BURBANK: Reynolds chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, which makes him one of the most powerful guys in Congress. Even before the Foley scandal broke, though, he was in a tight reelection race. But post-Foley, things have gotten worse with Reynolds trailing his opponent by double digits in some polls. He's hoping his apology puts the issue behind him.

Mr. EVAN TRACEY (Chief Operating Officer, TNS Campaign Media Analysis): You know it's not going to go away. It's going to be very hard for Republicans to kind of stick their head in the sand on this.

BURBANK: Evan Tracey runs TNS Campaign Media Analysis, a consulting firm that tracks political ads. He says Republican candidates who find themselves in the middle of the Foley scandal, people like Reynolds and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, may have no choice but to address the subject in their ads.

Mr. TRACEY: But again, they've got to use with caution, because, you know, right now there's a face to this spot and the face is, you know, Republican Mark Foley.

BURBANK: But even Republicans who barely knew Mark Foley are finding themselves dragged into the fray.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Washington is a mess, and Mike Sodrel is part of it.

BURBANK: This is a spot from Democrat Baron Hill running against Republican Mike Sodrel in Indiana's 9th District.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: ...And $77,000 from the House leadership who knew about but did nothing to stop sexual predator Congressman Foley. Millionaire Mike, he says nothing and refuses to return the money.

BURBANK: Armed with his own dramatic piano music, this week Mike Sodrel launched a counterattack.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Representative MIKE SODREL (Republican, Indiana): Only a Washington politician would exploit tragedy for political gain. Baron Hill's attack ads blaming me for the Mark Foley mess are the biggest lie yet.

BURBANK: Sodrel lays out what might be Republican's most effective comeback to Democratic ads concerning Foley, namely that Democrats are making political hay off of what he calls a tragedy.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Mr. SODREL: Baron, those aren't Hoosier values. I'm Mike Sodrel and I approved this message so you'll know the truth. Check the facts for yourself.

BURBANK: So far only a few Democrats has specifically mentioned Foley in their ads, but experts say that number is bound to go up as Election Day approaches. What could pose an even bigger problem, though, for some Republican candidates is the loss of the moral high ground when it comes to protecting kids from predators. And before Foley that was a very popular moral high ground to have, says media analyst Evan Tracey.

Mr. TRACEY: The crime spot du jour of this campaign has been elect me and I'll stop Internet sexual predators or people from preying on our children.

BURBANK: Spots like this one, which Nevada Republican Jon Porter was running before the Foley scandal.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Representative JON PORTER (Republican, Nevada): As parents, we need to know that our schools are not hiring teachers that are sexual predators. That's why I wrote a law in Congress that gives our local school districts the information they need to ensure that sexual predators are not teaching our children.

Mr. TRACEY: You know, the problem now, post-Foley scandal, is this is a very hard message for Republicans to use and not draw negative attention back onto the scandal.

BURBANK: Evan Tracey says Mark Foley is only one of the issues Republicans and Democrats will duke it out over via TV ads this campaign season. And however salacious it is, the Foley scandal is still small potatoes with voters compared to things like the Iraq war and the economy.

One thing both sides would agree on, though, is that despite their schmaltzy music and sometimes dubious facts, TV ads are still perhaps the most effective way to move large numbers of votes. That's why this year promises more of them than ever before.

Luke Burbank, NPR News.

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