WASHINGTON -- The congressional page sex scandal could have a decisive effect on key political campaigns across the country and prove crucial to Democratic hopes of gaining control of the House in November, political analysts said.
Polls are mixed on whether the scandal -- triggered by the publication of sexually explicit messages sent by former US representative Mark Foley, a Florida Republican -- has generated a wide voter backlash against Republicans nationally.
But analysts from both parties said polls have indicated a growing concern among voters about ethical problems in Congress, which could jeopardize support for Republicans, particularly among elderly voters, women, and religious conservatives.
In some House districts held by Republicans, the Foley scandal could prove decisive because of the candidates' connections to Foley or to child-protection issues.
Among the House races that may be affected are:
Florida: Foley's open seat in central and coastal Florida, where his name will remain on the ballot, even though he resigned Sept. 29 . Democrat Tim Mahoney, who had been trailing in the race, is now favored to win.
New York: The upstate New York district of Representative Thomas Reynolds, who is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The committee received $100,000 from Foley last summer, and Reynolds is one of the congressional leaders who knew last year of concerns surrounding Foley's e-mails.
Minnesota: The Sixth House District, where child safety already was the signature issue for the race's Democrat, whose 11-year-old son was abducted in 1989. ``Foley sent obvious predatory signals, received loud and clear by members of congressional leadership, who swept them under the rug to protect their political power," Minnesota Democrat Patty Wetterling said in her party's weekly radio address yesterday. Her son, Jacob, was abducted 17 years ago by a masked gunman; neither has ever been found. She is running for an open seat against state Senator Michele Bachmann, a Republican.
New Mexico: The seat of Representative Heather Wilson, who was a member of the House committee that oversees the page program during the period that Foley sent the sexually explicit instant messages that are now under scrutiny. Her Democratic opponent, Attorney General Patricia Madrid, has accused her of participating in a cover-up.
In more than a dozen other races around the nation, Democrats are trying to put Republicans on the defensive over the issue, although the links are weaker. They include competitive Republican-held seats in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.
In Indiana, Democratic challenger Baron Hill launched a television ad Friday running photos of Republican Representative Mike Sodrel and Foley alongside one another. The ad seeks to tie Sodrel, a first-term representative, to Foley via $77,000 in campaign money that Sodrel accepted from Republican leaders who Hill said ``knew about but did nothing to stop" Foley.
Democratic and Republican strategists say the scandal could also help Democrats by discouraging social conservatives, who usually vote Republican, from going to the polls. That could be especially damaging in heartland states such as Indiana and Kentucky.
The scandal also might encourage independent voters to cast ballots for Democrats in an effort to change the status quo, strategists for both camps said. ``You're not going to win running on Mark Foley," Republican strategist Brian Nienaber said of Democratic challengers criticizing Republicans in most races. ``But you could win on Mark Foley being a piece of [an argument that] `you've been in power for too long.' "
Democrats, who need to gain 15 seats to take control of the House, also hope that the Foley scandal will have an impact on close races in which other issues seem to be driving voters.
In the Florida district of Representative Clay Shaw, a Republican, Democrats are hoping that anger at Foley, whose district borders Shaw's, will spill over. ``This is all people are talking about, how outrageous it is," said Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party. ``The angriest people of the guys sitting there are the middle-aged, Caucasian guys, and they are the ones that are the most conservative."
A Pew Research Center poll said the war in Iraq remained the central issue in voters' minds heading into the Nov. 7 elections.
Pew polls also show that white evangelical Protestants' preference for Republicans over Democrats in congressional races has slipped, from 64 percent to 27 percent in 2002 to 57 percent to 31 percent now. That may be enough of a drop to affect close races, analysts said.
In an Associated Press-Ipsos national survey of 1,500 adults, about half of likely voters said that disclosures of congressional corruption and scandal would be very or extremely important in their selection of candidates.
A Time magazine poll of 1,002 adults found that 78 percent said they knew about the Foley scandal and 64 percent said they believed that House Republicans tried to cover it up.