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Another Brick in the (Scandal) Wall

The Fix was skeptical for much of the year about the Democrats' attempt to make the GOP "culture of corruption" argument a bulwark of their 2006 midterm elections strategy.

Rep. Curt Weldon
Rep. Curt Weldon addresses the media outside his Delaware County, Pa., campaign headquarters on Monday. Weldon denies any wrongdoing as the FBI probes allegations of influence peddling. (AP Photo/The Inquirer)

More Republicans than Democrats had been caught in the web of scandal, for sure. But a few high-profile cases involving Democrats -- the bribery and influence peddling allegations against Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson and questions about West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan's profiting from nonprofit groups he helped set up to manage federal funds he helped secure for his district -- appeared to weaken the argument. (It remains to be seen how far-reaching or impactful the recent allegations surrounding Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D) will be. We will continue to monitor it closely.)

But with yesterday's news that the FBI raided the home of Rep. Curt Weldon's (R-Pa.) daughter in connection with an investigation about possible influence peddling by the congressman, I'm beginning to rethink my past doubts. Voters aren't likely to reject a sitting Republican House member just because a handful of his or her colleagues have been caught up in alleged (or proven) crimes. Still, there are now enough Republicans with direct ties to a scandal to account for one-third of the 15 seats Democrats needs to retake the majority this fall.

As for Weldon, he appeared to have steadied his reelection bid in the last month or so, and Republicans had grown increasingly confident about his chances against retired Admiral Joe Sestak (D). Weldon's initial reaction to the FBI raid -- that the timing was politically motivated -- seems far fetched given that Republicans currently control all levers of the federal government.

Given the competitive nature of Weldon's 7th District (John Kerry won it with 53 percent of the vote in 2004) and Sestak's demonstrated fundraising ability ($2.3 million raised, $1.65 million on hand as of Sept. 30), the controversy surrounding Weldon could be decisive.

Here's the rundown of other normally "safe" GOP seats that are now in play directly due to scandals:

* Texas's 22nd District: Former Rep. Tom DeLay's (R) resignation was supposed to firm up Republican chances in this Houston-area seat where President Bush received 64 percent of the vote in 2004. But a judge ruled that DeLay's name could not be replaced on the ballot, forcing Republicans to run Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs (R) as a write-in. Former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) looked dead in the water when DeLay dropped out but now is a strong favorite to be the next congressman from the district.

* Ohio's 18th District: Much like DeLay's seat, national Republicans thought the worst was behind them when Rep. Bob Ney (R) announced he would not run for reelection. State Sen. Joy Padgett (R) was quickly chosen as a replacement. But Ney has remained in the news -- he pleaded guilty to corruption charges last week -- and, despite the urgings of GOP leaders, the Ohio congressman has refused to resign his seat. All of this means that attorney Zach Space (D) now looks like an even-money bet to win a district where Bush took 57 percent of the vote in 2004.

* Florida's 16th District: Unless you have been under a rock for the past month, you know why this seat -- formerly held by Rep. Mark Foley (R) -- is in jeopardy. State Rep. Joe Negron (R) has been plucked by the state party to receive any votes cast for Foley, but it will be Foley's name that will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. A Research 2000 poll showed Democrat Tim Mahoney ahead of Negron 48 percent to 41 percent in a head-to-head match-up, but that is not the match-up that voters will see on the ballot. The National Republican Congressional Committee is investing heavily in this seat, but it looks like a long shot. Did we mention that Bush won this district 54 percent to 46 percent in 2004?

* Pennsylvania's 10th District: Ever since Rep. Don Sherwood (R) took 56 percent against an unknown primary challenger back in May, this seat has been on The Fix's watch list. But the explosion of the Foley scandal and a series of devastating Democratic ads (reminding voters of Sherwood's admission of an extramarital affair and his mistress's allegations of abuse) have turned this district into one of Democrats' best pick-up chances. Sherwood was not even challenged by a Democrat in either 2002 or 2004. Last cycle, Bush won Sherwood's northeastern Pennsylvania district by 20 points.

With the exception of Weldon's seat, a series of scandals has put four seats that should be easy holds for Republicans into grave danger. The problem for Republicans is that they must now try to hold five seats that were not likely to be on their radar at the start of the cycle -- expenditures that come directly out of efforts to reelect other GOP incumbents who represent tougher districts and are in trouble (through no fault of their own) this cycle.

If Democrats wind up in the majority on Nov. 8, the names Ney, DeLay, Sherwood, Weldon and Foley will be something close to mud in GOP circles.

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 17, 2006; 3:54 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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