Ethics scandals not shaping up as big issue

September 03, 2006|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Rep. John T. Doolittle, a California Republican, has called disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff a friend.

Doolittle used Abramoff's skybox at a Washington sports arena for fundraising and has refused to return political donations from Abramoff. Now the congressman is the target of attack ads. One features an argument over whether Doolittle is "corrupt or ineffective."

Even so, Doolittle is favored to win re-election.

Ethics scandals cast a shadow over the last session of Congress, and the "culture of corruption" under the Republican majority was expected to be a major Democratic theme in the midterm campaign.

But it hasn't turned out that way.

Political observers say voters are focused instead on the Iraq war, immigration and gasoline prices. And because some of the incumbents under an ethical cloud are Democrats, it has undercut the party's ability to use the issue as major weapon against Republicans.

In fact, a number of lawmakers whose conduct has come under scrutiny are expected to be re-elected.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who is under investigation over ties to lobbyists, faces such a little-known, underfunded opponent that he hasn't even hired a campaign manager or opened a campaign office.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a California Republican under attack for his conduct as well as for his record on the environment, is favored to win because of his Republican-leaning district and ability to raise campaign funds as House Resources Committee chairman.

Rep. Allan B. Mollohan, a West Virginia Democrat who stepped down as the top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee after coming under scrutiny for allegedly steering millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations that he helped control, also is running ahead of his challenger.

That's not to say some lawmakers who have come under scrutiny aren't nervous.

Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, who also had ties to Abramoff - the once-powerful GOP influence peddler who pleaded guilty to defrauding clients and conspiring to bribe lawmakers - is locked in a tight race.

Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat and the subject of a bribery investigation who was found with $90,000 in his freezer, has drawn a dozen challengers, including prominent Democrats.

Also, Rep. Don Sherwood, a Pennsylvania Republican, faces a tough challenge after disclosures that the married congressman settled a lawsuit brought by a former mistress.

Polls have shown that many Americans see both parties as prone to corruption. Still, the issue had seemed to be one the Democrats could use to their advantage.

But two poster boys for the Democrats' "culture of corruption" campaign - former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, and Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican - decided not to seek re-election.

"Who are the faces of the Abramoff scandal? Bob Ney. Tom DeLay. Ralph Reed. Conrad Burns. Who's left?" said Matt McKenna, spokesman for Burns' Democratic opponent, Jon Tester.

Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader with ties to Abramoff, lost Georgia's GOP primary race for lieutenant governor in July.

Democrats were dealt another blow when they tried to make ethics a major theme in the race to replace imprisoned former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican who pleaded guilty to corruption charges last year.

Republican Brian Bilbray won that seat despite Democrats' efforts to highlight his work as a lobbyist.

Julian E. Zelizer, a Boston University history professor, said the corruption issue "already did its damage. There is not as much to gain by investing the entire campaign on that theme."

So while they are highlighting ethics - especially in the districts of Republicans whose conduct has come under scrutiny - Democrats are doing so as part of a broader message. They are using the instability in Iraq, high gasoline prices and the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina to call GOP leadership into question.

Indeed, more Democratic-sponsored TV ads picture Republicans with an unpopular President Bush than with Abramoff. A number of commercials assail Republicans as tools of "special interests," citing their support from the oil industry at time of high gas prices.

With the midterm elections two months away, the political math could change - especially if the investigation of influence peddling in Washington leads to indictments.

For now, Doolittle and Pombo are ahead in their races - "but only because gerrymandering has made their districts so heavily Republican," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

Doolittle's Democratic challenger, Charlie Brown, has aired a radio ad featuring former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland highlighting Brown's record as a U.S. Air Force officer.

Doolittle spokesman Richard Robinson said the race would be decided on issues such as national security, not a "phony culture-of-corruption campaign. Mr. Doolittle has represented this district for 25 years," he said. "People know him. They know him to be a hardworking, honest, sincere man."

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report - a handicapper's guide to elections nationwide - has moved the Pombo race off its list of competitive contests.

Pombo, opposed by Democrat Jerry McNerney, remains a top target for environmentalists because he advocates drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and relaxing a ban on offshore oil drilling.

In Lewis' case, Democrats said that the veteran Republican congressman's troubles arose too late for them to recruit a better-known, better-funded candidate. Lewis, who has denied wrongdoing, had nearly $1.5 million cash on hand in his campaign fund through June.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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