'Foley Effect' Hurts Ohio Congressional Candidate

In the 15th district of Ohio, Republican Congresswoman Deborah Pryce is suffering from what's being called the "Foley effect." Rep. Pryce was friendly with former Florida Congressman Mark Foley, who resigned abruptly last month after revelations of inappropriate e-mail exchanges with former congressional pages.

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And now to politics. In Ohio, the Mark Foley scandal may be having an impact on an important Congressional race. The Democratic challenger has been running ads linking the incumbent, Republican Deborah Pryce, to the disgraced former congressman. And Pryce says her pollsters are seeing the effects.

NPR's Frank Langfitt traveled to Columbus where Pryce is in a tight race that could help decide control of the House of Representatives.

FRANK LANGFITT: It was a throwaway reference in a local magazine. Asked to list her friends in Congress, Deborah Pryce, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, named Mark Foley.

After the story broke that the congressman had sent explicit sexual messages to underage pages, Pryce's opponent, Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, opened fire.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Deborah Pryce's friend, Mark Foley, is caught using his position to take advantage of 16-year-old pages. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert looked the other way when he was warned about Foley's predatory behavior. Now Pryce is protecting Hastert, even though he protected a sex predator?

LANGFITT: In fact, Hastert says he knew nothing of explicit emails, only ambiguous ones. And Pryce says she didn't know anything at all until the story broke.

But last week, Pryce's campaign spokesman, George Rasley, said the scandal was reverberating in Ohio's 15th District.

Mr. GEORGE RASLEY (Spokesman, Deborah Pryce Campaign): It's self-evident that there is a Foley effect, if it's, you know, all Foley all the time on all the channels when you're in the field for a poll. Suffice it to say that it, you know, took a significant chunk off the top of the approval of Congress generally.

LANGFITT: In interviews with two dozen voters, though, people said the Foley scandal was irrelevant to the race, and those who heard the ads hated them.

Ms. CINDY LIDLE(ph) (Voter): Oh, I don't like that kind of advertising at all.

LANGFITT: That's Cindy Lidle, an undecided Democrat. She's shopping for books in upper Arlington, an affluent suburb and Pryce's hometown.

Lidle says linking Pryce to Foley makes no sense.

Ms. LIDLE: One is not responsible for what one's friends do. I think that he did whatever he did, and she wasn't responsible for that.

LANGFITT: In addition to the Foley scandal, the Republican Party faces a number of tough issues nationally, and they're resonating here in Ohio. Among them, the war in Iraq.

Connor Kinsey(ph) is an MBA and law student at Ohio State University. He supported Pryce in the past two races. Last week, he watched the candidates debate. Afterward, he says he's not sure he'd vote for Pryce again.

Mr. CONNOR KINSEY (Law Student): It's going to be a difficult decision, because I agreed with her answers to more of the questions, but the big kicker for me and for so many people right now is the war in Iraq, and really just the question of do I elect who I think the better candidate is, or do I somehow or another see that I need to send a message overall about my approval or disapproval of this war? Does that one issue override everything else?

LANGFITT: Another problem for the Republicans here is the economy. Although Columbus is doing well, Ohio has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs and lags behind the rest of the nation. During the debate, Pryce insisted that the Republican economic policy was strong.

Representative DEBORAH PRYCE (Republican, Ohio): We have an almost textbook, storybook economy going on in this country. It's true that Ohio is coming along slower than other states. But honestly, consumer confidence is up. Wages are up. Unemployment is down.

LANGFITT: It's just after the debate and I'm standing in the living room of Cindy Lidle. She's the undecided Democrat I talked to in the bookstore who hated the Mark Foley ads. She just watched the debate on TiVo. What did you think of that answer?

Ms. LIDLE: I think she's being real positive, but she's not being realistic. We know of people who've been laid off, who have lost their jobs, who can't find jobs. I don't know that this is a storybook or textbook economy.

LANGFITT: These sorts of issues have played into the hands of the challenger, Mary Jo Kilroy, a Franklin County Commissioner. Instead of focusing her campaign against Pryce, a popular political moderate, she's focused on national Republican leadership, as she did in the debate Thursday night.

Ms. MARY JO KILROY (Franklin County Commissioner): This is a referendum on the policies of the current administration and the direction this country is headed.

LANGFITT: What was once seen as an easy Pryce victory is now a dead heat, and Democrats smell blood. That's way Jessie Cloth(ph) is walking the streets of Columbus this evening. He's a paid canvasser with a pro-labor citizen's lobby affiliated with the AFL/CIO. He's braving rain and tornado warnings to find common ground with voters and urge them to go to the polls next month.

Mr. JESSIE CLOTH (Canvasser): Are you Francine Kelly?

Ms. FRANCINE KELLY (Ohio Resident): Yes.

Mr. CLOTH: My name's Jessie. I'm with Working America. We're just out talking with our members about the elections. Francine, is there a national issue you feel is most important?

Ms. KELLY: Raising minimum wages.

Mr. CLOTH: Raising minimum wage? Right on, right on.

LANGFITT: 2004 was a very good year for Republicans in Ohio, but President Bush only won this district by 2200 votes. This time around, the political atmosphere is much worse. With the war in Iraq, the Ohio economy and the Mark Foley scandal swirling around her campaign, Deborah Pryce has just 23 days left to convince voters she deserves another term. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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