CORRECTION: The print edition of this article mischaracterized the view of Jeff Ballabon. He believes that if Republican leaders knew about Mark Foley’s actions and hid them for political purposes, then they should resign.
The scandal over a disgraced Republican’s sexually suggestive emails to teenage congressional pages could end up swinging at least one key Florida race in the fight for the House of Representatives.
Political observers are predicting that a Jewish Democratic candidate and state senator, Ron Klein, is poised to capitalize off of the recent resignation of Republican Rep. Mark Foley and subsequent revelations that House GOP leaders were aware of at least some of his emails months ago. Klein, running in a heavily Jewish district in south Florida that abuts Foley’s, is seeking to oust 12-term incumbent Republican Rep. Clay Shaw.
“I think most experts down here would agree that [the Foley scandal] has the potential for really hurting Clay Shaw,” said Jim Kane, chief pollster of the nonpartisan organization Florida Votes.
The Democrats, who need to pick up 15 seats to take back the House, are increasingly looking at Shaw as a Republican incumbent who can be defeated.
By the beginning of this week, several GOP candidates were returning donations from Foley. Shaw, whose district includes parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, reportedly donated the $2,000 that he had received from Foley to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
While the Foley scandal itself may not have impacted races across the country, Kane said, coupled with the GOP’s mounting problems it could prove to be a key factor.
“If you look at things that are going on with the economy, particularly gasoline, and then the war in Iraq, and some of the ethics violations that have gone on with lobbyists,” the pollster said, “and you add this significant transgression by a well-known south Florida Republican congressman — it just adds to the problems that Republicans are facing in general.”
Klein’s bid to unseat Shaw was initially considered a long shot. Now, Kane told the Forward, it’s “too close to call… and every week it gets tighter and tighter.”
Foley, a six-term congressman representing parts of Palm Beach, St. Lucie, and Charlotte counties, resigned suddenly September 29 after being questioned by ABC News about suggestive emails that he sent to a 16-year-old congressional page in 2005. The emails, in which Foley asks the page how old he is, what he wants for his birthday, and to email him a picture, were not sexually explicit but were described by the teenager as “sick sick sick.”
In the days since the scandal broke, several additional pages came forward with transcripts of instant message communications dating back to 2003 in which Foley referred explicitly to sexual organs and acts. The Congressional Page Program brings 66 teenagers to Capitol Hill each summer to relay messages, answer phones and learn about the workings of the House of Representatives. The page whose emails sparked the investigation did not work directly with Foley, but rather with Rep. Rodney Alexander, a Louisiana Republican.
The scandal has led to a rift within the GOP leadership, and many groups across the political and religious spectrum have criticized the way the leadership has handled the story.
On Tuesday, the right-leaning Washington Times called on House Speaker Dennis Hastert to resign. Hastert knew about the 2005 emails, which he described as “overly friendly,” several months before the scandal broke. He had Rep. John Shimkus, who oversees the page program, and Alexander ask Foley to stop communicating with the boy, but did not take any further action at the time.
Also on Tuesday, House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told a Cincinnati radio station that Hastert did not handle the situation appropriately.
The same day, however, White House spokesman Tony Snow described the situation as “simply naughty emails.”
Foley served as the chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children and introduced several pieces of legislation intended to prevent sexual predation of children.
Democrats are predicting a heavy fallout for Republicans in Florida and nationwide.
State Senator Nan Rich, a prominent Florida Democrat and an active member of the Jewish community, said that discontent with the Republican Party is growing among Florida’s voters, and “Klein will be the beneficiary of that.”
David Goldenberg, spokesman for the National Jewish Democratic Council, told the Forward that nationally the scandal is “going to have a horrible effect on Republican candidates in general.”
Many leading Christian conservatives have criticized Foley and the GOP leadership’s handling of the situation. As of Tuesday, religious conservatives and Republicans in the Jewish community appeared mostly to be staying mum on the matter.
One Orthodox Republican activist, Jeff Ballabon of the Center for Jewish Values, argued that the actions of one man does not reflect the overall values of the GOP, which he believes are more in line with traditional Judaism.
“People who share traditional values want to keep control of Washington away from Democrats,” he told the Forward.