Even with the political fallout from the page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) still being measured, Republican campaign operatives acknowledged Monday that it could represent a significant blow to their party’s prospects for holding the House in the November midterm elections.
Foley’s abrupt resignation Friday capped what GOP strategists believed had been a couple of positive weeks for the party’s re-election efforts. But Democrats argue that the burgeoning scandal may now be the tipping point that provides the latest reason for independent voters to turn against Members of the GOP-led Congress at the ballot box.
Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), said the political repercussions of Foley’s sexually explicit e-mails to teenage pages could be more detrimental than some of the scandals that engulfed the Democratic-led House in the late 1980s and early 1990s, because it involves an issue that people can so easily identify with.
“I think it reinforces people’s general attitude that things aren’t going well,” Elmendorf said. “That people in Washington are out of touch. That Congress is screwed up. And this is something that people can understand. I think this has the potential to be worse than the House Bank was for us.”
Purely from a mathematical standpoint, the Foley matter eases the Democrats’ path to winning the 15 seats needed to take the majority next Congress. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Monday that Foley’s GOP-leaning district is all but certain to be picked up by Democrats.
With Foley’s seat and a handful of other Republican-held open seats leaning strongly toward a Democratic pickup, strategists on both sides of the aisle privately acknowledge that the number of seats Democrats need for a takeover now appears to be in the single digits.
Florida law requires that Foley’s name must stay on the ballot, although Republicans on Monday picked a designee who will receive all of the votes cast for Foley.
“They can’t afford to lose the seat and they just lost a seat,” Elmendorf said.
Republicans continued to caution, however, that the impact the matter would have on GOP incumbents and other races beyond Foley’s seat would be minimal.
“There are a relatively small number of true tossup seats and, in a national environment that affects races at the margins, these races are still going to be decided in large part by the caliber of the candidate, the money that they raise and the campaigns that they run,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayers.
Still, he acknowledged the obvious difficulties it could present in light of the other scandals that have rocked this Congress, including the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scheme and ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) bribery conviction.
“There’s always that fear that the culmination of that bad news weighs on the party collectively,” Ayers said.
There are about 15 GOP House incumbents currently viewed in pure tossup races around the country. In addition to those, there are more than two dozen other vulnerable GOP incumbents as well as more than a handful of contested GOP-held open seats.
At the same time, fewer than 10 Democratic-held seats are considered in play.