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GOP Counterpunching on Ethics

Cognizant of how their effective portrayal of a Democratic Party drunk with power led to their historic takeover of the House in 1994, Republicans are moving quickly to ensure that Democrats do not get traction on the ethics issue for the 2006 elections.

For every Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee news release calling on Congressman So-and-So to return campaign contributions from indicted Republican ber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the National Republican Congressional Committee accuses Democratic leaders of hypocrisy — or worse.

When the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Montana Democratic Party made a television buy last month criticizing Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) for his Abramoff ties, the National Republican Senatorial Committee wasted no time quibbling with the ad’s imprecise wording.

The swift counterattack paid off: At the request of some local stations, the Democrats agreed to tweak the ad.

Democrats think the indictments of Abramoff and political allies of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) taint enough Republicans to make ethics a salient issue for them in next year’s midterm elections.

But Republicans, in addition to counterpunching, maintain that Democrats are talking about ethics so much because they have nothing else to say.

“The fact that they are chasing this rabbit demonstrates they don’t have issues to talk about and they don’t have an agenda,” NRSC spokesman Brian Nick said. “So what recourse do they have? Well let’s go throw spaghetti at the wall and see if it sticks.”

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said Republicans have to move aggressively to counter ethics charges because the issue hits home.

“It’s a huge issue,” she said. “We’ve also tested the statistic that the number of lobbyists has doubled [recently] and what we’ve found in general is there is a strong belief that Washington is really out of touch and that can really resonate, so it’s a good overall umbrella argument.”

In the case of Burns, it’s especially powerful because “you have two very clean Democratic candidates — one is a true outsider candidate” — who can draw clear distinctions between themselves and an “out of touch” Senator, Lake said.

Montana state Auditor John Morrison and state Senate President Jon Tester are competing for the Democratic nomination to take on Burns next year.

While individual Republican Members may be in exceptionally hot water, Democrats have a long way to go before they can truly nationalize the issue, warns Brad Coker, president of the independent Mason-Dixon polling firm.

“It’s not registering on the Richter scale yet,” Coker said.

At least at this early stage, voters are unhappy with lawmakers in general but Congressional Democrats are faring only a little better than Congressional Republicans in opinion polls.

A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed that only 36 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress is doing, while 58 percent disapproved. A Newsweek poll released earlier this week showed 50 percent of Americans preferring generic Democratic Congressional candidates compared to 38 percent who expressed a preference for Republicans.

Whether the GOP’s low poll numbers, coupled with Democratic attacks on ethics, make the Republicans vulnerable in the long run is debatable.

“As long as there’s been Congresses, there’s been individual Members caught in ethical lapses,” Coker said. “I’m not sure if [the Abramoff scandal] is seen as anything other than typical political rhetoric. It’s hard to say” if the issue can really take root, because “more details need to come out but right now, Abramoff — he’s not a household name.”

Maybe so, but Democrats think they have enough time to hammer the point home so come November 2006, voters will know who he is — and seats that no one thought were competitive will be.

“We’re going to keep talking about them,” said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the DCCC. “The truth of the matter is they have several Members who are very much riddled with ethics matters and having to defend themselves each day.”

Among others, Democrats are targeting DeLay, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), and the seat being vacated by embattled Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) — not traditionally favorable terrain — because they think questions about those Members’ ethics can put their seats in play.

Feinberg said Republican attempts to counter each DCCC allegation is a sign of their “desperation.”

“Every step of the way, those releases and those attempts to get press have been pretty see-through,” she said, noting that when DeLay’s political associates in Texas were indicted last week, the NRCC accused DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) of shady behavior.

“It’s so obviously trying to change the subject,” Feinberg said.

Ed Patru, a spokesman for the NRCC, said the only thing obvious is that Democrats are devoid of ideas.

“Republicans had a clear alternative that resonated with the public, the Contract with America,” he said, dismissing the notion that 2006 could be like the Republicans’ 1994. “There’s no indication that Democrats have anything near that.”

Patru also said Republicans have no fear of an election based on ethics.

“If they’re seeking an ethics war, that’s what they’re going to get,” he said. “Democrats are failing to nationalize the election around ethics because to the public, there is no difference between the parties on this issue.”

Many of the recent ethical lapses have involved Republicans, but just as some Democrats think Cunningham’s seat is winnable now because of his questionable dealings with a federal contractor, Democrats are not completely innocent, Mason-Dixon’s Coker noted. For example, Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) had his home searched by the FBI not long after Cunningham’s properties were raided.

Still, Coker said Democrats might be on to something.

“Over time, if there’s a steady drumbeat and enough individual lapses come up to back it up” maybe voters will pay heed, he said. “But I don’t think you got Watergate here.”