Politics, it is said, is a dirty business and in this midterm election year, both political parties find themselves up to their necks in dirt.
It is no longer a case of whether one or another party is corrupt. The issue, instead, is which party if more or less corrupt than the other.
Democrats claim a “culture of corruption” exists among Republicans and are convinced they have a winning election-year issue. The GOP claims it’s a wash.
If it is a wash it may be because both sides need a bath.
Allegations of criminal wrongdoing and ethical lapses among lawmakers shadow several competitive House and Senate races from Ohio to Texas and Louisiana to Montana this midterm election.
“We need a new direction that restores honesty to the People’s House,” Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said recently, emphasizing one of her party’s campaign messages as scandal-scarred Republican Rep. Bob Ney (news, bio, voting record) of Ohio abandoned his re-election race.
Out of power for a dozen years, Democrats are trying to persuade voters to give them the reins of Congress by arguing that ethics questions surrounding a few Republicans are part of a broad pattern of corruption in the GOP.
The Democrats’ effort, however, has been muddied by similar woes in their own ranks, which Republicans gleefully point out as they try to inoculate themselves from Democratic attacks.
GOP leaders also have sought to undercut the Democrats’ strategy by pressuring two congressmen facing corruption allegations — Ney and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas — to end their re-election bids. Party leaders wanted to make way for unscathed candidates.
Despite such maneuvers, GOP leaders brush aside any notion that corruption will become a national issue that will motivate voters to dump Republicans on Nov. 7.
“All politics is local,” Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Republicans’ campaign committee, said recently.
However, polls show the corruption issue may have legs. Nearly half of those surveyed in a Gallup poll in June identified “corruption in government” as “extremely important” to their vote for Congress this year. That poll also found that the public trusted Democrats over Republicans — 44 percent to 24 percent — to do a better job dealing with the issue.
This month, Ney became the latest Republican to see his political career end amid a corruption investigation. He has not been charged and insists he’s innocent. Yet the six-term congressman’s links to Jack Abramoff, who is at the center of a Washington lobbying scandal, hang like a cloud over the district.
Everyone seemed to have an opinion about the race the day the local newspaper headline screamed “Ney drops out.” Some said it was about time that he abandoned his bid while others wished he would have stuck it out. Detractors characterized him as shady, but fans described him as a beloved congressman who served the region well.
One thing voters in the district that snakes from central Ohio south seemed to agree on — they’ll vote for the candidate they trust the most.
“Zack Space is an honest man,” Rick Critchhow, a Democrat who voted for President Bush in 2004, said of the party’s nominee as he sipped coffee at the Daily Grind Cafe with his buddies. All were down on Ney.
Another regular, Jim Swinderman, said the congressman’s favored Republican replacement on the ballot, state Sen. Joy Padgett, has a lot to prove. “We don’t know her. She’s just a face,” he said, pointing to a newspaper snapshot.
Across town, at a groundbreaking ceremony for a technology business park, Tom Hackenbracht and Paul Hickman, both Republicans, praised Ney’s “outstanding record” and lamented what they called a big loss for the district.
“It’s very easy to criticize someone in a leadership capacity and so many times you forget the good that’s been done,” Hickman said. Forced to choose someone instead of Ney, Hackenbracht said: “I’m excited about Joy Padgett. She’s an excellent candidate.”
Republicans are banking on voters like them to help the GOP retain the district. It had been considered one Democrats could win in the fall, but the GOP’s chances brightened with Ney off the ballot.
On a larger scale, Democrats contend corruption allegations will stoke a desire among a restive public to fire Republicans.
“When you’re in charge, you pay the price if people are angry,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster in Washington.
But Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster in Alexandria, Va., said both Republicans and Democrats could be held accountable for corruption woes as lawmakers in both parties stand accused.
“You can never underestimate the capacity of the Democrats to screw up a good thing as they have with the corruption issue,” he said.
Democrats aimed to make corruption an election-year Achilles’ heel for the GOP after then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.
Then, as part of a separate bribery investigation, the FBI searched Rep. William Jefferson’s home and said they found $90,000 stashed in the Louisiana Democrat’s freezer. He claims innocence but faces a dozen challengers this fall.
In West Virginia, Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan is the subject of an investigation into federal money given to nonprofit groups that contributed to his campaigns. He denies wrongdoing. Republicans plan to run ads to help Chris Wakim win the district.
Democrats are gunning for seats held by four Republicans struggling to escape the taint of Abramoff. All maintain their innocence.
Three-term Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana has come under scrutiny for initially accepting campaign contributions from Abramoff. Burns faces a fierce challenge from Democratic state Senate president Jon Tester.
In Texas, Republicans persuaded DeLay, who has ties to Abramoff, to abandon his re-election bid. He resigned from Congress while facing indictments in Texas related to a campaign finance scheme. State Republicans are organizing behind a write-in candidate to run against former Rep. Nick Lampson, a Democrat.
Meanwhile, Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., has faced calls for investigations into his banking activities and questions about Abramoff-related campaign donations. Democrats plan to raise ethics questions to help their candidate, Heath Shuler.
Downballot in Georgia, Ralph Reed’s loss in last month’s GOP primary for the lieutenant governor’s race was blamed in part by the former Christian Coalition leader’s association with Abramoff — an ominous sign, Republicans say.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press