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GOP Hopes Political Damage Will Be Minimal

While Democrats are gloating that Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) indictment will help them make electoral gains next year, many Republicans are cautiously optimistic the GOP leadership won’t skip a beat filling his shoes and maintaining, if not growing, their House majority. Fans and detractors of DeLay believe the Republican House machine is in good hands — at least good enough —to continue scoring legislative victories, raising campaign cash and enforcing unity and discipline. “They will be able to handle it,” Republican pollster Glen Bolger said of the team Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has assembled to fill DeLay’s shoes. “Bad poll numbers help concentrate the mind. We have bad poll numbers, and Republicans will work extra hard to do what we need to do to keep the majority.” Nevertheless, Republicans say DeLay’s indictment and removal from leadership will not hobble Republican House candidates in 2006. “For several years I’ve argued that Tom was the straw that stirred the drink; on the floor and on the campaign trail, he was the biggest difference-maker,” said one former House Republican leadership aide. “But the definition of success here isn’t making sure we fill Tom’s shoes as making sure we fill in the important gaps and do a B+ job rather than an A- or an A job.” One current House Republican aide is more concerned, saying that even though DeLay gets more credit than he deserves, having three Members take over his duties creates that many more opportunities for problems to occur. “Those of us in the rank-and-file are a little worried,” said this aide, who is familiar with the situation. “The good news is, I think people are scared now; they realize ’06 is going to be a battle.” Democrats have tried to shame Republicans into returning donations received from DeLay’s political action committee. Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out 41 separate calls for refunds from 41 GOP Members in 41 states. Within hours of DeLay stepping down as Majority Leader, the chairmen of state Democratic parties throughout the country had adjusted their talking points accordingly. Asked last week why she believed a safe Republican House seat in her very red state was now winnable, Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Lisa Pryor replied that the district appeared safe “before [Hurricanes] Katrina, Rita and Tom DeLay.” Several Democratic operatives believe the DeLay situation could translate into significant gains next year, including in the Senate. Reps. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) and Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), are seeking Senate seats, and Democrats will try to link both to DeLay. President Bush and Congressional Republicans are “hopelessly out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of most Americans — more focused on maintaining power than making a difference,” said Democratic pollster Alan Secrest, a principal in Cooper & Secrest Associates. Bob Doyle, a Democratic consultant who is president of Sutter’s Mill Fundraising, said DeLay’s troubles — and the Democratic argument that Republicans have grown out of touch with voters’ needs — could resonate in a variety of House districts, including those in rural areas and in the Mountain West. “We’re going to see large blocs of swing voters who have voted Republican — whether it’s over security issues or social issues — throw up their hands and say ‘we’re ready for a change,’” said Doyle, who often represents incumbents and challengers in conservative districts. Del Ali, president of Research 2000, an independent national polling firm, said DeLay’s demise can only be bad news for Republicans in the 2006 election. But he said it’s too early to predict a tangible result at the ballot box, and he noted that Democrats are defending more marginal House seats than Republicans are. “The good news for Republicans is all this stuff is happening now, because people have short memories,” Ali said. For that reason — and because the GOP’s bad run of events has happened more than a year before the November 2006 midterms — Republicans don’t believe DeLay’s troubles will have a lasting effect on their election prospects. In the face of lousy poll numbers for both Congress and Bush, Republicans continue to be buoyed by their insistence that Democrats don’t have much of an agenda, and what little agenda they do have is less appealing to voters than the GOP’s. “I think the problem our friends on the other side have is they can’t win without ideas, and they can’t win with their ideas,” said acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in an interview last week, two days before DeLay relinquished the Majority Leader post. The key for Republicans, Bolger said, is to do what they’ve done in the past: offer voters a concrete set of ideas that address the issues they are concerned about. At this time, that includes gas prices and the situation in Iraq. Financially, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti said House Republicans have plenty of money at their disposal, with more likely to come in from a Republican base angry that DeLay was “targeted by a partisan Democratic prosecutor.” DeLay’s difficulties in some ways stem from his successful attempt to elect more Republican state legislators in 2002 — and then change Texas’ Congressional boundaries in time for the 2004 elections. The Supreme Court is currently accepting briefs from Democrats and other parties that sued to overturn the re-redistricting. But it is not clear if the high court will ultimately decide to hear the case — and even if it does, oral arguments would not take place until sometime in 2006, too late to affect the Texas map for next year’s elections.