Hoping to ensure recent headlines about former House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, remain in the foreground of voters' minds this midterm election year, a liberal advocacy group has announced a $1 million cable television advertising campaign set to begin Thursday.
Americans United, the revamped advocacy group that led the successful opposition to President Bush's efforts to change Social Security last year, will press for passage of the lobbying reform legislation unveiled last week by Democrats in the House and Senate. The advocacy group is largely backed by labor unions.
The new television ad flashes images of DeLay, Abramoff, Libby and others across the screen while the announcer intones: "It's time for a change."
The investigation into Abramoff's dealings with Congress members has caused both Democrats and Republicans to put lobbying reform at the top of their agendas and race to claim the mantle of the party best positioned to clean up the way Washington does business.
"The issue of corruption is likely to play a very big role in the elections upcoming," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, an Americans United adviser.
Republicans are likely seeing similar polling data, which may help explain why Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., tasked members of their leadership teams with heading up their respective lobbying reform efforts.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a likely 2008 presidential candidate who enjoys a reputation as being something of a reformer, said this morning that lobbying reform would get done this year. But McCain says whether the reform gets at "the cause of the corruption," namely pork barrel spending, will be the real question.
The Abramoff investigation is already playing a starring role in some 2006 campaigns. One Republican senator up for re-election this year has launched an early television ad stressing that he did nothing wrong in his dealings with Abramoff. "I don't know who Abramoff influenced, but he never influenced me," says Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., in the commercial.
Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who has been most entangled in the Abramoff investigation and who was pressured to temporarily relinquish his committee chairmanship, refuses to allow the swirling ethics controversy to deter him from seeking re-election. Ney, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing and who continues to maintain his innocence, will officially begin his 2006 re-election campaign Thursday in Dover, Ohio.
The Democratic Party is hoping the "culture of corruption" label that it is trying to permanently attach to the Republicans in charge of Washington, D.C., has enough staying power to last through November.
However, as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove demonstrated in a speech to the Republican National Committee last week, Republicans are planning to continue to make national security the most prominent issue this year.
"Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview, and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview," Rove told the Republican activists. "That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong deeply and profoundly, and consistently wrong."
Millions will be spent trying to control the political conversation at dinner tables across America in late October and early November. Whoever does it most effectively will have the edge when the votes are counted.
The Political Unit's Mike Westling contributed to this report.