As the Mark Foley freakshow continues, the question on everyone's mind in Washington is how the scandal will affect the upcoming elections. House leaders seem locked in a circular firing over the questions surrounding who knew what about Foley and when; will voters be disinclined to vote for their party next month?
The data is inconclusive. Yesterday the Pew Research Center released the results of its latest poll indicating that the results of their generic Congressional ballot question ("If the election were held today...") was virtually the same before and after Foley's resignation. On the other hand, a Rasmussen poll released yesterday showed 61% of respondents believe that GOP leaders have been "protecting Foley for several years," which may mean trouble down the road.
But even if the Foley scandal has no national impact at all, it still may be very costly. That's because the race for control of the House of Representative is so close this year that a single seat is a big deal -- and Foley's seat is almost certainly lost.
Under Florida law, when a candidate quits the race, the state party can choose a substitute to take his place. The Florida GOP has chosen State Representative Joe Negron to run for the 16th district in lieu of Foley. But Florida law doesn't allow the ballot to be changed after the primary; if a candidate drops out after the primary, his name stays on the ballot but his votes go to the replacement. To win, Joe Negron needs people to vote for Mark Foley. Few besides Negron's most loyal supporters think that voters will do that, even with four weeks to explain the ballot rule. Florida's 16th gave Bush 54% of its vote in 2004 to Kerry's 46%. Though this is a conservative district that would normally be safely Republican, it isn't so overwhelmingly conservative that Republicans can weather a storm like this.
One district that is overwhelmingly conservative is Texas's 22nd, which gave Bush 64% of its vote in 2004. But Republicans have even less chance of winning in Texas-22 than they do in Florida-16. That's because there's no Republican on the ballot at all. Tom DeLay insisted past his primary that he'd be running for another term, and when he changed his mind, resigning from Congress and withdrawing from the ballot, Democrats successfully sued to stop the Republicans from putting any name on the ballot. (The local GOP has endorsed a write-in candidate, Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, but no one has ever won a write-in campaign for federal office from Texas, and the process for casting write-in ballots on the voting machines used in the district is very cumbersome.)
How critical is each House seat? The most recent Constituent Dynamics/RT Strategies Majority Watch polls, released earlier this week, show just how big. Majority Watch polls registered voters in each of 31 congressional districts. They now show 219 seats leaning Democratic and another 2 tied. It takes 218 seats to make a majority.
If the Majority Watch polls are predictive, the Democrats are on track to win a majority with a margin of between 2 and 4 seats. But what a flimsy majority it would be, one in which at least half their margin of victory comes from seats that can be expected to easily fall back into Republican hands in the next cycle.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves and proclaim certain doom; a lot can happen in a month, after all. But Republicans can take some comfort in the fact that if they do lose, they'll get a nice consolation prize -- in a box marked "Open in 2008."
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