Sanford Swamps GOP Message

Any hopes that House and Senate Republican leaders had for going into the July Fourth recess next week on a high note were dealt a major setback Wednesday when South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) announced he was having an affair with a woman in Argentina.

Sanford’s affair is just the latest in a series of ill-timed scandals and controversies involving high-profile Republicans that have helped undercut the efforts of party leaders to rebuild after two straight electoral losses and the repercussions of the Bush administration.

Todd Harris, a Republican strategist and partner at Scott Howell & Co., said the timing of the revelation was particularly hurtful because it throws Republicans completely off message.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time because we were just starting to get some traction with our Obama wasteful spending message,— Harris said. “Now this sideshow is going to consume all the attention.—

Most lawmakers were reluctant to talk openly about the implications for the party’s rebranding efforts. But privately, Republicans acknowledged that the scandal, like those before it, will not help their cause.

“It’s certainly no good,— a House Republican said.

Sanford went missing for several days to visit his mistress in Argentina, and his office told reporters that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. On Wednesday, he held a bizarre press conference to admit his affair, a week after Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) stood before microphones to acknowledge having an affair with a former campaign aide who is married to a former staffer in his Congressional office.

“I’m still in shock,— one House Republican said about Sanford’s admission. “On the heels of Ensign, what was he thinking?—

“As the governor of South Carolina, to leave your car at the airport and leave for Argentina to see a woman ... that is not a mistake. That’s a brain disorder,— the Member added.

Ensign and Sanford were members of the Republican Party’s leadership — Ensign served as the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee until the scandal broke, while Sanford was chairman of the Republican Governors Association until he stepped down Wednesday. They were also both elected to the House of Representatives in 1994 as part of the historic class that wrested control of Congress from the Democrats for the first time in decades.

Ensign and Sanford had also been talked about as potential presidential contenders in 2012 and had been working to build national name recognition for themselves over the last year.

The incidents follow a chain of Republican scandals — former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s arrest in a Minnesota airport, former New York Rep. Vito Fossella’s drunken-driving arrest on his way to visit his mistress and illegitimate child, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter’s involvement in a prostitute scandal — as well as numerous controversial comments by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele that have knocked the party off its message.

In almost every instance, those scandals came just as Republicans were either getting some traction with the public on a policy issue or finding comfortable footing from which to fight Democrats, party strategists said.

“Its clear right now that we’re going to get beat up by history. ... We’re kind of snake-bit and have to go through the downside of the cycle,— said Eric Ueland, vice president of the Duberstein Group and former chief of staff to then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

“Every time they start to get some air under their wings, someone from their own party shoots them down,— Ueland said. Republicans have had some success recently in generating opposition to the closing of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the expansion of federal spending and the White House’s publicly funded health care proposal, he said.

“There are more important fights to be had on policy rather than on who has their zipper up or who has their zipper down,— Ueland said.

Ron Bonjean, a former aide to Republican leaders in the House and Senate, said the scandal did the GOP brand little good but noted that Sanford was relatively unknown outside of South Carolina and Washington, D.C., political circles.

“It’s not what Republicans need right now as they try to rebuild their brand, and the news drip of these scandals cannot continue,— he said. “At the same time, we are lucky that those who are in trouble have very low name recognition.—

But Stuart Roy, a partner at Prism Public Affairs, said the scandals involving Sanford and Ensign will have little negative effect on the GOP brand as a whole.

“Neither party has cornered the market on morality,— Roy said. “It obviously makes some people look hypocritical, but it’s very difficult to make these kind of issues partisan.—

However, several veteran Republican aides in the Senate acknowledged that because Republicans have spent the better part of three decades building their platform on family values issues, they are particularly susceptible to charges of hypocrisy when they stray.

“Someone needs to get this situation under control,— one Senate Republican aide said, arguing that the party’s leaders need to be more proactive in trying rehabilitate the party’s ethical image.

Ueland argued that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) should make it clear to their Members that the party will not protect them when they are caught in scandals. “There’s not much that can be done on personal matters ... [but leadership should be] clear and concise that if you are horsing around, the consequences are going to be severe.—

There can be “no more facilitating and no more letting it float on by,— he added.

The bright side, Ueland said, is that the longer Democrats control the House, Senate and White House, the more ethics investigations, Justice Department inquiries and personal scandals will befall the majority.