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DeLay at Issue On Homefront

With only three Republicans so far announcing that they will return funds received from indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Democrats are ratcheting up pressure on GOP Members, both publicly and privately, to return past campaign donations from the former Majority Leader.

At the same time, a secretive front group is placing phone calls in as many as 60 GOP-controlled districts echoing that same message. Democrats have denied any link to the group, but Republicans are convinced otherwise.

Reps. Heather Wilson (N.M.), Jeb Bradley (N.H.) and Kenny Hulshof (Mo.) have all unloaded DeLay’s money, while Rep. John Kline (Minn.) said he would return his if DeLay is convicted. DeLay has been indicted by a Texas grand jury on conspiracy and money-laundering charges.

DeLay and his allies have vehemently denied any wrongdoing by the once-powerful Texan and have vowed to fight the accusations, characterizing the case as little more than a rogue state prosecutor, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, trying to settle a political score.

But House Democrats, sensing an opening on ethics in advance of the 2006 midterm elections, are mounting a localized offensive to pressure Republicans into giving back campaign money they received from DeLay.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has e-mailed two fundraising pitches to donors since DeLay’s initial indictment on Sept. 28, one of which was devoted entirely to telling “House Republicans to return DeLay’s Dirty Money.”

DCCC spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg said the committee has not done any national polling since DeLay’s indictment, but instead touts local press coverage from around the country as evidence that the story has broader implications for the GOP.

“Clearly Wilson, Bradley and others have decided they don’t want to be associated with him anymore,” Feinberg said. “It’s just not a Washington story anymore — it’s a regional story and a local story.” DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden charged Democrats with playing “petty political games.” He said the DCCC strategy is proof that the party lacks a positive message and he predicted it would ultimately fail.

“Targeting Tom DeLay is all the Democrats know,” Madden said. “They don’t have any one single idea to take to the American public. … That’s a strategy that’s going to unravel as quickly as the baseless charges that Ronnie Earle has brought against Tom DeLay.” Madden reiterated that the GOP Conference has rallied around DeLay since Earle brought the first indictment last week. He said he was not aware of any Republicans who had expressed concerns about DeLay potentially hurting their own re-election efforts.

“We’re going to get through this and we’re going to beat Democrats the way that we always beat Democrats,” Madden said.

Meanwhile, an anonymous group is blanketing districts across the country with automated phone calls, targeting Republicans who have not given back the money they got from DeLay.

Democrats have denied any ties to the group, which calls itself “We the People,” but Republicans say they smell a conspiracy. The calls have been received in at least 20 districts, although Republicans estimate that the scope of the calls could be as high as 60 districts.

Among the districts targeted are those of several vulnerable Republicans, including Reps. Clay Shaw (Fla.), Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Bob Ney (Ohio).

Over the weekend, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) answered one of the phone calls, which ends with a woman saying “Let’s cut out the cancer of corruption in Congress.”

Republicans have yet to track down the origins of the group. According to a statement released by Ney’s office, “We the People” has no organizational listing, no Web site, no phone number, no legal disclaimer on its phone calls, and the phone calls contain deliberately false caller-ID phone numbers.

“These are just the latest examples of an ongoing and coordinated effort by the [DCCC] to use shadowy outside groups and unregulated political contributions to win back control of the House in 2006 through disinformation and negative attacks,” said Ney spokesman Brian Walsh.

DeLay has been a prolific fundraiser for Republican candidates in recent cycles, although he has traditionally not traveled to help individual Members back home in their districts. The bulk of campaign funds he has funneled to Republican candidates have been in the form of donations from his leadership PAC.

In the meantime, the battle over DeLay has been much quieter among conservative and pro-business groups that have worked hand in hand with DeLay over the years.

For now, at least, relatively few interest groups are undertaking high-profile efforts to come to DeLay’s defense after his indictment. The one group making the biggest splash is the Free Enterprise Fund, a relatively new group started by Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore. (Moore has since left the group.) Peter Roff, a vice president with the Free Enterprise Fund, called the group’s recently launched advertising effort a “six-figure project,” at least for now.

The ad, which is airing on Fox News Channel this week, features footage of swimming sharks and a voice-over that proclaims, “The sharks are circling, trying to shred the president’s agenda” by attacking former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The ads end with: “Stand behind the Bush free market agenda and its leader in Congress, Tom DeLay.”

“We are going to be different. We want to be different,” Roff said. The group tapped Republican strategist Nelson Warfield to produce the ad spot.

Todd Schorle, a spokesman for the Free Enterprise Fund, said in an e-mail that “the response to these ads always seems to be a big mixed bag. I see some nasty e-mails from people, but mostly the e-mails I get are from people thanking us for running the ad.”

He added that “as for fundraising I think it has helped and is a good message for people to get behind.”

The DeLay team said it’s pleased with the ads.

“It’s good,” said DeLay’s Texas-based spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty. “It’s playing well in the district. Most Texans don’t need to be told what an embarrassment Ronnie Earle is. They know this is simply a political vendetta playing out on the national stage.”

By contrast, none of the big business groups that worked closely with DeLay, such like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, is jumping into the debate.

Tita Freeman, director of communications for the Business Roundtable, said her group doesn’t get involved in ongoing investigations. “It would not be appropriate for an outside association,” she said.

Pat Toomey, who heads the Club for Growth, said his group has no plans to do any paid media in support of DeLay because the former Majority Leader doesn’t need it. But, he added, “I wouldn’t rule out some involvement at some point.”

However, some grass-roots conservative groups have issued statements and sent e-mails to their members in support of DeLay. Tom Minnery, a vice president with the conservative grass-roots organization Focus on the Family, said his group has sent out an e-mail to its 130,000-person activist network defending DeLay and expressing its skepticism of the indictment. The group’s president, James Dobson, may also address DeLay’s indictment on his radio program, but Minnery said Dobson “has been taken away” from the DeLay issue by the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers.

And DeLay’s legal defense fund — which launched the Web site this week — has received interest, said the fund’s Brent Perry. This year the defense fund has paid out more than $400,000. But Perry added that the defense fund faces several legal restrictions — including an inability to accept donations from registered lobbyists or foreign agents.

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