Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Scandal-Tinged Six:

Whose campaigns are dead on arrival and who will survive to run again?

Isaac Wood and Larry J. Sabato, U.Va. Center for Politics June 14th, 2007

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Last week the Crystal Ball examined fifteen freshman Representatives (fourteen Democrats and one Republican) who we consider to be endangered in November 2008. As promised, now we turn to part two of our list of the imperiled: the “Scandal-tinged Six.” Here, the partisan tables are turned, as five Republicans and one Democrat are in danger of losing their seats because of scandal. Some of the ethical issues involved in these cases have surfaced since the last election in 2006, while others are older but still-developing news.

In 2006, scandals came in two main varieties: Abramoff-related and Foley-gate. Several “associates” of lobbyist Jack Abramoff went down to fiery electoral defeats or had to resign to avoid further embarrassment. The voters didn’t quite finish the job, however, and some Representatives on this list represent a “second helping” to vengeful voters who pledge to do a more thorough Housecleaning this time around. Mark Foley’s indiscretions were widely reported during the last election cycle, but ultimately the primary effects of the revelations were limited to his own district. The secondary effects, however, spread nationwide as Republicans couldn’t seem to catch a break throughout the entire autumn campaigning season.

This year, the U.S. Attorneys scandal immediately took center stage, but waiting in the wings was an assortment of dirty laundry, just waiting to be aired. Resignation rumors, cash found in the freezer, and FBI raids have been the order of the day, and some Representatives are already feeling heat from voters, with Election Day still over a year away. The picture is still a little fuzzy this far out, as even dedicated and experienced political observers can never quite imagine what could possibly come next in these developing stories, but these six Representatives will have plenty of questions to answer leading up to the next election (assuming they last that long).

A word of warning: not all of the seats listed here will change parties in 2008. Several members in this category face stiff primary opposition, as some challengers argue that the incumbent will lose if they are allowed to advance to the general election.

Also bear in mind that, with Congress, scandals spring eternal. As 2008 approaches, this list may grow, rather than shrink. There are already other Representatives in hot water for one reason or another, but only time will tell whether those circumstances will boil over into a full-fledged scandal. No matter what, expect seats to be lost as challengers capitalize on the “dirty deeds” of the previous occupants.

CALIFORNIA’s 4th DISTRICT: Oroville and Northeast California

Few in the 110th Congress have been as scandal-plagued as Rep. John Doolittle. After being tied to the bogeyman of the 2006 elections, Jack Abramoff, Doolittle jumped from the frying pan into the fire. In April, his home in Virginia was raided by federal agents and he has been named as the subject of a federal investigation. In his defense, Doolittle suggested that the Justice Department is singling him out to take the attention off of embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, but the headlines and negative press make the justification for the investigation moot.

Given the resilient Republican nature of the district, should Doolittle resign, the seat would likely stay in Republican hands. Political observers have been predicting an eventual resignation for weeks, but with no signs of one to come, perhaps he will survive this session. If that happened, he would be greeted by stiff opposition in the primary by former supporter Eric Egland, who organized fellow veterans for Doolittle last November. Whoever survives the primary would likely face 2006 Democratic candidate Charlie Brown.

ARIZONA’s 1st DISTRICT: Flagstaff, Casa Grande, Prescott

Rep. Rick Renzi may have survived ethics troubles in 2006, but after the election the firestorm only intensified. In April, the FBI conducted a raid of his family’s insurance business and rumors swirled that he would be forced to resign. Renzi had already been accused of nepotism and improper land deals and was implicated in the ongoing U.S. Attorneys scandal. While Renzi has thus far stuck it out, forfeiting only his House Intelligence Committee post, the voters may not be so forgiving to the three-term Republican. Renzi’s 2006 challenger recently decided not to reprise her role in 2008 and the DCCC’s preferred candidate dropped out, but five other Democrats remain interested. Of course, to get to the general election Renzi would have to first not resign, and then win a possible Republican primary.

LOUISIANA’s 2nd DISTRICT: Parts of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish

Whenever Democrats mention the GOP’s ethics foibles over the past two years, Republicans have always had a quick retort: Rep. William Jefferson. What the Democrats lack in quantity of indicted representatives, they sure make up in audacity. Jefferson, of course, is the Harvard-educated lawmaker caught two years ago with $90,000 in cash in his freezer. This week, Jefferson was indicted on enough charges of bribery and racketeering to merit a 235-year long sentence if convicted on all counts. Jefferson surrendered his last committee assignment, Small Business, and an ethics panel has convened to consider expelling him from Congress.

The district cast three times as many Democratic votes as Republican votes in the past two presidential elections, showing its solid blue tendencies, but Louisiana’s unique “jungle primary” can offer an interesting twist to any election. In Louisiana, there is an open primary on Election Day, but if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, then the top two candidates (regardless of their party affiliations) advance to a runoff a month later. Most likely, Jefferson will have resigned by next November, in which case Democrats would be surefire winners of a special election. Current New Orleans Mayor, Ray Nagin, has been mentioned as a potential entrant into the race for this seat, but he may instead choose to shoot for the governorship which will change hands this fall.

NEW MEXICO’s 1st District: Albuquerque

Rep. Heather Wilson is one of the Representatives most closely associated with the fired U.S. Attorneys scandal. In mid-October of last year, less than a month before her hotly contested reelection, Wilson called the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, David Iglesias, reportedly to speed up the federal investigation into supposed corruption by New Mexico Democrats. Iglesias notified her that indictments would not be handed down until after the election, and one week later he was fired by President Bush. Considering that Wilson won that election by only 875 votes out of over 200,000, she could well be a target again.

The district leans Democratic in presidential elections, but Wilson was able to resist the Democratic wave in 2006, so her defeat can hardly be taken for granted. At the moment, she has only one announced challenger, Albuquerque City Council President Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who is also the state Trustee of Natural Resources, an office appointed by state Governor Bill Richardson. With Richardson’s strong backing (assuming he doesn’t have some larger race in mind) and if the U.S. Attorney scandal is still on voters’ minds, 2008 could put Wilson’s resiliency to the test once again.

CALIFORNIA’s 41st District: Parts of San Bernardino

According to conservative columnist Bob Novak, Rep. Jerry Lewis has decided not to seek another term, an unsurprising development considering recent scandals. Not so fast, says Lewis, who claims to have not yet made up his mind about running for reelection and points to a September announcement date. Lewis was one of the committee chairs of the 109th Congress who was ousted from his post when Democrats took over this January. While some observers speculated that these Republicans used to being in the majority would take part in a mass exodus via retirement, Lewis’s potential retirement would represent only the second this year from this group (the other is Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is running for the Republican nomination for president).

Lewis’ past scandals primarily revolve around his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee which, detractors allege, allowed him to steer government contracts to companies that did business with a firm owned by his friend and colleague, ex-Rep. Bill Lowery. He was under investigation by a U.S. Attorney for such practices when the attorney was dismissed in the purge that turned into the U.S. Attorneys scandal. Lewis has been immune to electoral challenge throughout his career, winning with over 60 percent in all fifteen of his elections and surpassing the 80 percent mark three times. If anything, the district has been trending even more Republican in recent years, as Bush increased his winning percentage by 6 percent from 2000 to 2004, and the retirement, if true, of an embattled Congressman would remove any possible ammunition from the Democratic arsenal.

FLORIDA’s 24th District: Parts of Orlando and Daytona

Rep. Tom Feeney was one of a seemingly endless number of lawmakers connected to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in advance of the 2006 congressional elections. Feeney was specifically accused of partaking in the infamous golf trip to Scotland and also took at least two other trips that appeared to either violate House ethics rules or skirt very close to the line. Feeney had the dubious honor of appearing on the liberal Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s list of corrupt Congressmen twice in one year, a result of the trips he took and the irregularities in disclosing his ownership of rental property.

It is worth noting, however, that Feeney had these same clouds looming overhead in 2006 and still managed a 15 percent victory in November. Democrats alleged that Feeney’s campaign engaged in vote rigging, but the House recently dismissed the appeal to overturn the election. In 2004, when Feeney ran entirely unopposed, Bush carried the district by ten percentage points and in 2000, when Feeney won his first election with an almost 25 percent margin, Bush won Florida’s 24th by six points. At this point, Feeney appears safe, but his propensity to survive rather than avoid scandal could spell trouble for him in the intervening year and a half.