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Democrats: Abramoff Ties Make Feeney Vulnerable

If Central Florida is key to any potential pickups by House Democrats in 2008, as some claim, the Orlando-area district of Rep. Tom Feeney (R) may end up being ground zero. After all, House Democrats say, Feeney is one of a few of Jack Abramoff’s Congressional cohorts still standing after a fabled 2003 golf trip to Scotland.

And if all the cards fall as Democrats hope, taking the district may be little more than shooting fish in a barrel.

“Feeney went on the same trip with Jack Abramoff to Scotland … now it looks like he’s going down the same path as ex-Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Tom Delay (R-Texas),” said Kyra Jennings, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We see that ethically challenged Republicans have a hard time getting re-elected…a good candidate wouldn’t have any trouble picking [Feeney] off.”

The DCCC, which Jennings said is still paring down its list of potential 24th district Democratic challengers, ramped up its recruitment effort after recent reports claimed that the one-time safe Republican may not have properly reimbursed the sponsors of the Abramoff golf trip.

Feeney has said he is cooperating with a Justice Department investigation involving Abramoff. His former chief of staff, Jason Roe, recently resigned as a top aide to the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) after recent reports surfaced involving Feeney’s relationship with Abramoff.

Although Feeney declined to speak with Roll Call regarding his 2008 re-election bid, his office did provide a brief written statement regarding the targeting of his seat by Democrats.

“If liberals are looking at this seat, it’s because of Rep. Feeney’s principled positions on preventing illegal immigration, tax cuts for hardworking Floridians, and fiscal restraint to protect the financial future of our children and grandchildren,” wrote Feeney spokeswoman Pepper Pennington.

In regards to the political liability of Feeney’s alleged dealings with Abramoff, Pennington pointed to recent newspaper editorials by the three-term former lawyer. In the editorials, Feeney denies he did anything improper and said he is not the subject of the investigation.

“The House Ethics Committee has made no finding that I violated any House rules and have closed their file on this matter,” Feeney recently wrote in Florida Today. “In August of 2003, I went on a trip to Scotland, based on an invitation to meet governmental dignitaries. I was told that a public policy group was sponsoring the trip. My staff contacted the Ethics Committee prior to my going on the trip and was told that Members had gone on similar trips in the recent past.”

Feeney continued: “At the time of the trip, I personally paid for my flight out of Scotland, greens fees, and other activities. As soon as I learned that there was concern about the trip and trip sponsor, I took it upon myself to request an opinion from the House Ethics Committee on how to proceed to ensure that all legal and ethical steps were taken.”

“Investigations into a number of matters continue,” he added, “and I have been told I am not a target of the investigation.”

Mark Bubriski, a spokesman for the Florida state Democratic Party, said his party is certain that regardless of how the matter turns out, Feeney will not emerge untarnished. Add a credible candidate and, voila, Bubriski said a one-time GOP stronghold is suddenly in play.

“No matter how he tries to explain himself out of it, there are still unanswered questions,” Bubriski said. “When it comes down to it he did go on an all-expense-paid golfing trip to Scotland paid for by a super lobbyist who’s now in jail.”

But scandal aside, Bubriski said, the shifting demographics in Central Florida are shading a one-time “independent area” increasingly purple. The change, he said, means Democrats are now looking to prospect in districts such as Feeney’s, which has given the GOP incumbent roughly 60 percent of the vote in general election — that is, when Feeney has had a general election opponent.

“It’s a great area for us right now,” Bubriski said. “The population is growing… and we feel really good that it’s moving in a direction that will benefit us.”

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