Last year Ohio Republican Representative Bob Ney, one of Tom DeLay's lieutenants, coasted to re-election by a 2-to-1 margin over an obscure foe. Next year Ney will face an aggressive, well-financed challenge from a former state legislator who is currently the Democratic mayor of one of his district's largest cities. Why the sharp rise in Democratic prospects? Was it mounting frustration with the Iraq War? Concern about the damage done to Ohio's industries by Bush Administration free-trade policies? DeLay's indictment? All were factors in Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer's decision to take on Ney. But the real appeal of the race--as it is with contests involving a growing number of GOP Congressmen--is Ney's link to an old-fashioned bribery and influence-peddling scandal that has already sullied the reputations of some of Washington's most powerful Republicans and that could muddy the 2006 re-election prospects of dozens more.
The burgeoning controversy surrounding Jack Abramoff, a conservative lobbyist whose Washington ties stretched deep into the Bush White House and the Republican Capitol, has yet to gain anywhere near the media attention accorded the CIA Plamegate leak investigation or DeLay's indictment. Yet with the bank fraud indictment of Abramoff now part of a Florida grand jury inquiry and the guilty plea by Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide who became Abramoff's partner, on charges of conspiring to bribe a Congressman, the scandal is creating headaches for Republicans--and opportunities for Democrats to turn a national scandal into political pay dirt. Even the Wall Street Journal admits that the Abramoff imbroglio "raises the risk of serious embarrassment to the [GOP] before next year's congressional elections." Ohio's Sulzer is making the risk a reality with an in-your-face challenge to Ney, who accepted overseas trips, gifts and hefty campaign donations from Abramoff, allegedly in exchange for using his office to advance the interests of the Indian tribes and casinos that were Abramoff's big-ticket clients. Sulzer says Ohioans "need a Congressman who will...be getting headlines for providing better healthcare or better jobs for our district, not for ethics scandals and investigations."
There is every reason to believe that candidates in other states can pick up on that theme. Ney is, after all, only "Representative No. 1" in the Justice Department investigation of how Abramoff used ties to top Republicans--going back to college alliances with Grover Norquist, one of Washington's best-connected conservative activists, and Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition--to build a powerful DC lobbying operation. The investigation is already examining his relationships with DeLay, Representative John Doolittle and Senator Conrad Burns, as well as seventeen current and former Congressional aides and two former Bush Administration officials. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Abramoff had working relationships with dozens of Congressmen, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who collected more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff's firm and clients between 2001 and '04 and in 2003 urged Interior Secretary Gail Norton to favor the lobbyist's clients in an Indian-gaming dispute; House majority leader Roy Blunt, who accepted at least $8,500 for his PAC and campaign from Abramoff's firm and clients between 1999 and 2003 and who intervened at least three times in matters involving those clients; and California Representative Dana Rohrabacher, who accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Abramoff and turned up as a financial reference for the lobbyist's purchase of a casino cruise line. Dozens of GOP House members have banked direct contributions from Abramoff.
The lobbyist's ties to Senator Burns, who accepted $150,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and his cronies and helped an Abramoff client score a $3 million federal grant, could be an especially big deal in 2006, as Burns's Montana Senate seat is a top Democratic target. Another vulnerable Republican senator, Missouri's Jim Talent, has also been a recipient of Abramoff's largesse. At a point when Democrats are excited by the prospect of picking off GOP Senate seats in blue states Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, as well as the classic swing state of Ohio, blows to Republican incumbents in red states Montana and Missouri make talk of a Democratic turnaround in the Senate credible. Another GOP senator up for re-election next year, John Ensign of Nevada, signed a letter on behalf of Abramoff's tribal clients and accepted $16,293 from the lobbyist, his associates and clients--creating an opening that might not otherwise have been found in a red state that has been trending blue.
To be sure, Democrats have a sorry history of running as reformers. The party's inability to exploit the Enron debacle--at least partly because some Democrats accepted Enron-linked donations--shows there's more to hanging a scandal around your opponents' necks than merely watching it unfold. But because of Abramoff's long and close ties to the GOP establishment, the scandal of this particular lobbyist presents a unique opening. Indeed, while the primary focus should be on House and Senate races, one of the most interesting playouts of Abramoff's troubles may come in Georgia, where his pal from college Republican days, Reed, is running for lieutenant governor. Reed's most aggressive Democratic foe, former State Senator Greg Hecht, has created a model for Democrats seeking to make hay from the scandal by banging away at what he refers to as the Abramoff-Reed scandal. It appears to be working. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Republicans are worried about polls that show Reed's negatives beginning to move ahead of his positives. If Democrats are smart, they'll recognize that these trends can apply well beyond the borders of Georgia.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
© 2005 The Nation