The scandal involving Mark Foley, the Florida congressman who resigned last Friday after the discovery of lurid e-mails and instant messages he sent to teenage congressional pages, has the potential to reshape the election landscape. It was the latest blow in a bad week of news for Republican congressmen getting ready to leave town to campaign - following a congressional report linking the White House to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and showing dozens more contacts with him than the White House had admitted, and a book by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward strongly suggesting the Administration has mislead the public about the Iraq War. The Foley scandal could well be the most damanging of the three. Woodward's book, even with all of its details about Administration infighting and blunders in Iraq, reinforces a notion most Americans already hod, that the war in Iraq isn't going well. The Abramoff revelations, too, simply added more specifics to bolster what Americans already think: that congressmen are too close to lobbyists.
Foley's resignation will greatly increase the Democrats' chances of winning one of the 15 seats they need to take back the House, since Foley's name will remain on the ballot, even though the G.O.P. has named a new candidate, Joe Negron. But the Foley scandal could have much wider ramifications, raising the question of whether Congress as an institution is the problem. The top GOP congressional leaders had been informed of at least some of Foley's e-mails, but didn't directly ask Foley about them. Republican Rodney Alexander of Louisiana, under whom one of the pages worked, initially brought the problem to Tom Reynolds, the New York congressman who runs the National Republican Campaign Committee tasked with getting members reelected. His decision to go to Reynolds first adds fuel to the charge that Republicans saw this as much a political problem as a matter of keeping children safe. With approval numbers for Congress lurking below 30% in most surveys, this kind of event, a month before the election, could reinforce a "throw the bums" out mentality that could result in a Democratic win in the House.
To try to neutralize the issue, Republicans will take two tacks. The members in tight reelection races will slam Foley's conduct and take whatever steps necessary to bash Republican leadership as well. Christopher Shays, in a close race for reelection in Connecticut, has already called for the resignation of any member of the House leadership "if they knew or should have known" about the e-mails, and while other Republicans may not go that far, they'll call for investigations. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has already asked both the state of Florida and the Justice Department to look into Foley's conduct. Meanwhile, House leaders are trying to get their story straight about the exact timeline of who was informed of Foley's e-mails and when. The goal is to move the issue away from how the leaders reacted and back toward the problems of Mark Foley. So far, they've largely bungled that effort. Reynolds, for example, said he personally informed Speaker Dennis Hastert of Foley's messages, but Hastert's office put out a statement saying the "Speaker does not explicitly recall this conversation," while not disputing Reynolds' memory.
The impact of this scandal could grow even wider. First, if any more pages come out in the next few weeks with stories of overly friendly or sexually explicit communications with congressman, there could more more resignations (although this could, of course, affect Democrats as well as Republicans). And if evidence emerges that congressional leaders knew even more about Foley's conduct than they have admitted, more Republicans might start calling for for their heads. Either way, the talk about Republicans rebounding in the fall has been quieted by a scandal no one could have predicted.