The scandal involving Representative Mark Foley (Republican) of Florida, who abruptly resigned his seat last Friday, has engulfed the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives, adding an explosive issue to the pile of woes facing the GOP in its tough battle to retain control of Congress.
Foley quit Congress after he was confronted with evidence that he had sent sexually explicit electronic messages to former teenage House pages.
Foley had already been accused earlier of sending what Republicans call "over friendly" e-mails last year to another former page, a teenage boy from Louisiana. Members of the House GOP leadership acknowledge they knew about the less-explicit e-mails months ago and say they were handling the issue quietly, at the request of the boy's family.
Republican leaders say they did not know about the more-explicit messages until last week. But critics charge that at the first sign of possible trouble earlier this year, when the leaders learned of the e-mail traffic between Foley and the Louisiana boy, the GOP leadership should have acted more forcefully against Foley.
Adding to the black eye for the GOP, which calls itself the party of family values, is the fact that Foley had co-chaired the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, and had sponsored numerous bills aimed at protecting children from predators.
"It's a disaster" for the Republicans, says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "This could be the tipping point," he adds, referring to the 15-seat net gain that Democrats need to win control of the House.
Not only will the Republicans have a hard time holding onto Foley's seat, the scandal may also endanger Representative Tom Reynolds of New York, head of the GOP's House campaign committee. Reynolds released a statement on Saturday saying he had been informed of the existence of the e-mails between Foley and the Louisiana boy by the House member for whom the boy had paged, Representative Rodney Alexander (R) of Louisiana, but that he had not seen the e-mails in question.
"Mr Alexander told me that the parents didn't want the matter pursued and I told the speaker of the conversation Mr Alexander had with me," Reynolds continued.
He also said Alexander took the matter to the clerk of the House and that an investigation was conducted by the clerk and Representative John Shimkus (R) of Illinois, head of the House Page Board. Pages are high school students who work for members of Congress and attend a special school on Capitol Hill.
After Alexander learned of the e-mail exchange between Foley and Alexander's former page, Foley was ordered to stop contacting the boy. The e-mails, while not overtly sexual, made the boy uncomfortable. In one, Foley asked the boy to send him a picture of himself and asked him what he wanted for his birthday. The teenager called the e-mails "sick".
While many of the other House members aware of the autumn 2005 e-mails including Alexander, speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, and majority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio are not seen by political handicappers as endangered for re-election by the scandal, Reynolds may be different.
Though holding a safe Republican seat in a normal election year, Reynolds could be hurt in a year where the top of the Republican ticket in New York the candidates for governor and Senate is weak this year and could suppress GOP turnout in that state. The page scandal may suppress turnout further.
The Democratic Party is reportedly considering a quick ad campaign focusing on family values. Of all the scandals hurting the Republicans this autumn three GOP members have already been indicted for corruption the page scandal is the easiest to understand. Few issues grab voters with children more than a scandal involving a member of Congress and an underage child, and the appearance of a coverup.
In recent weeks, the Republicans' prospects for keeping control of the House appeared to have brightened somewhat, as Bush's job approvals had grown to 40 per cent (still not high, but heading up) and the price of gas had declined.
But the continuing bad news out of Iraq plus stories on reporter Bob Woodward's new book, and the latest national intelligence estimate painting a negative picture on terrorism and Iraq plays badly for the Republicans. And now the Foley scandal adds to the challenge.
In Florida's 16th congressional district, GOP chairman Sid Dinerstein is not willing to concede defeat in the newly cast battle for the seat.
Yesterday, the executive board of the state GOP was supposed to meet to vote for a replacement for Foley on the ballot expected to be popular state Representative Joe Negron. But Foley's name will remain on the ballot and all votes cast for him will go to the new candidate.
The local GOP will have to mount a major campaign to explain that to voters.
"It's gone from clearly being a safe seat to a seat where we're going to have to work very hard to win," says Dinerstein.