Democrats hop on Foley scandal

Across the nation, their campaigns are attacking Republican incumbents with any ties to House leaders who are under fire.

Published October 5, 2006

That didn't take long.

Days after the e-mail scandal ensnared Rep. Mark Foley and raised questions about how House Republicans handled it, Democrats across the country have worked the matter into campaign ads, debates and political attacks aimed at depicting Republican leaders as more interested in protecting their own than in serving voters.

From Tampa Bay to the Midwest to the West, Democratic challengers are demanding that their Republican opponents return money Foley donated to their campaigns and denounce House Speaker Dennis Hastert for his office's handling of the matter.

"Call congressman Young at (727) 893-3191, and demand he stop the coverup. The answer is arrests, resignations and a new congressional leadership," said a recorded message hitting St. Petersburg area homes in the district of Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.

Similar "robo-calls" by a Washington, D.C., liberal group, American Family Voices, are reaching constituents of Florida Republican Reps. Ginny Brown- Waite, Clay Shaw, Ric Keller and Tom Feeney, as well as residents of 45 other congressional districts across the country.

With Democrats needing just a 15-seat gain to win the House and six to take the Senate, and with tight races across the country, turning Republican voters their way on Election Day - or at least getting them to stay home - could be deadly for the GOP.

"It's voter suppression. It's the classic role of calls like this to reduce Republican turnout," said Republican political consultant Rick Wilson. "But the Democrats are getting out on cliff here and better be careful before it comes back to bite them, being too partisan with this."

Foley resigned Friday after ABC News made public a series of sexually explicit messages he sent to teenage boys who had served as congressional pages.

House Republican leaders say they knew nothing of those messages but acknowledged they had spoken with Foley in November after a former page complained of "overly friendly" e-mails Foley had sent him. The leaders did not talk to other pages or investigate further.

Ninth Congressional District Democratic candidate Phyllis Busansky fired at Republican rival Gus Bilirakis on Wednesday, noting that Hastert recently helped raise about $60,000 for Bilirakis.

"It has been well documented that Hastert knew about congressman Foley's reprehensible e-mails and still enabled Foley to remain chair of the Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children," Busansky said in a statement. "It is time for Gus Bilirakis - not his spokespeople - to step forward and speak for himself for once: Does he support Dennis Hastert as speaker of the House?"

Bilirakis said he supported a full investigation into the matter, but he doubted Hastert would brush off serious evidence of improper behavior by Foley.

"Let's see what the facts are. ... Whoever tried to cover it up should be prosecuted," Bilirakis said.

Similar political spats are taking place across the country, particularly in races where Democratic challengers are close to unseating Republican incumbents.

In Nebraska, a debate between Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, the Republican incumbent, and Democrat Maxine Moul became an argument over whether Hastert should resign over the scandal.

In Pennsylvania, embattled Rep. Jim Gerlach, a Republican, canceled a scheduled fundraiser with House Majority Leader John Boehner until more was known about who in the leadership knew what about the Foley messages, and when.

And in Albuquerque, Republican Rep. Heather Wilson, in a tight race against Democrat Patricia Madrid, is being challenged for not doing enough to protect pages when she served as a member of the House Page Board in the last congressional session, when Foley sent messages to former pages he had met in Washington.

But perhaps the most cutting use of the scandal is in Minnesota by Democrat Patty Wetterling, a nationally known advocate for exploited children whose son, Jacob, was abducted by a masked gunman 16 years ago. He has been missing since.

Wetterling is challenging  State Sen. Michelle Bachmann, a Republican. This week, she launched TV ads calling for an investigation and the expulsion of any members "involved in this crime and coverup."

"Congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children," her advertisement says. "For over a year they knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect their own power."

Wetterling, because of her personal history, is one Democrat who can get away with hammering at the Foley scandal without being accused of politicizing it, but analysts for both parties said other Democrats best be careful.

The party's congressional leaders, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Harry Reid of Nevada, have called for an investigation into how Republican leaders handled the initial allegations against Foley last year.

But they continued to pour most of their criticism on other matters, especially the Republican handling of the war in Iraq. Democratic strategists said that while they expected other candidates to allude to the scandal in more TV ads to come, it would probably be tangential - discussing the importance of protecting children from predators, for instance.

Democrats have scandals of their own, including bribery allegations against Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., and America still hasn't forgotten about the sexual scandal, and attempted coverup, involving former President Bill Clinton and a former White House intern.

Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said Democrats should be wary of looking too partisan.

"I don't think Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid should talk about it," he said. "Don't hold a lot of press conferences on it."