Craig Is Gone, Leaving G.O.P. Bruised

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Joe Jaszewki / The Idaho Statesman / AP

Senator Larry Craig speaks to reporters with his wife Suzanne, August 28, 2007, in Boise, Idaho.

The only regret the G.O.P. is likely to feel about the end of Idaho Senator Larry Craig's 27-year congressional career is that it didn't happen two days earlier. Craig's announcement, Saturday, that he intends to resign effective Sept. 30 comes amid the traditional Labor Day weekend campaign launches for the 2008 election cycle. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had not envisioned starting the weekend with the news media dominated by speculation over whether Craig is gay, and why he pled guilty to disorderly conduct on Aug. 8 when accused of soliciting sex from an undercover cop in the men's bathroom of a Minneapolis Airport.

Craig's announcement, just days after he swore to fight the charges, was hardly surprising, given the race among Republican legislators and candidates to distance themselves from the Senator, many of them calling outright for his resignation. "Disgusting," said 2008 G.O.P. presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. "Unforgivable," said McConnell to a local newspaper in his home state of Kentucky. The Republican National Committee even drafted a letter calling for his resignation, although it stopped short of releasing it to avoid being seen as piling on — although leaking it widely to the media had virtually the same effect.

Noting the presence of Idaho Governor Butch Otter and Idaho Republican Party Chairman Kirk Sullivan at his resignation announcement, a clearly humiliated Craig noted: "For any public official at this time to be standing with Larry Craig is in itself a humbling experience."

Scandals of the sort that brought down Craig have a demoralizing effect on the Republican base, leaving the party even more vulnerable in the 2008 elections. In putting Democrats in control of Congress for the first time since 1994, voters last November cited corruption scandals that had led to the resignation of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, California Rep. Duke Cuningham and Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, coupled with a sexual harassment scandal involving underage male congressional pages that led to the abrupt resignation of Florida Rep. Mark Foley.

Just last spring, Senator Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, both Alaska Republicans, were linked to an ongoing bribery and money laundering investigation. And Senator David Vitter of Louisiana admitted to inappropriate conduct with the D.C. Madam. Now, the G.O.P. must digest the Craig scandal.

"Craig had the misfortune to commit his sin on the heels of Foley, Vitter, and others," said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "The tolerance in the G.O.P. ranks for misdeeds is at a low ebb. Republicans are facing yet another tough election where they are behind the eight ball, and the activists are disillusioned."

Vitter's job was saved only by the fact that his replacement would have been named by Louisiana's Democratic governor, and the Republicans were not about to sacrifice a seat. Given that Idaho is heavily Republican, "his replacement, unlike Vitter's, was guaranteed to be an electable Republican," Sabato said. "This was an easy call for the G.O.P. leadership."

As of May 31, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which helps elect Republicans to the Senate had raised only $9 million, compared to the $18 million raised by its Democratic counterpart. Even worse, the G.O.P. has 22 seats, or two-thirds of their caucus, up for reelection while only 11 Democratic seats are at stake in 2008. Craig's is one of those 22 Republican seats up for reelection, although analysts say there is little danger of it going to the Democrats in given how Red Idaho is.

The greater danger in the Craig scandal is that it could further alienate the party's social conservative base, said Stephen Schneck, head of the politics department at Catholic University in Washington. "Republican leaders are frantic, fearing a cataclysmic collapse of the perceived moral high ground vis--vis the Democrats among Evangelicals and Catholics — not only among swing voters, but among the base," said Schneck.

Fear of the impact the latest scandal would have on the Republican base appears to have been foremost in the mind of Senator John Ensign, head of the NRSC, to urge Craig to quit for the sake of the party. "There is no question Senator Craig, being a Republican, brings a bad reputation," Ensign told a television station in his homestate Nevada. "We've had some problems lately."

While Craig's departure will likely move media coverage of the scandal from the front page to Page 10, it still leaves the Republicans facing a tougher challenge than ever the difficulty in regaining the high ground with their own base over the next 16 months.