With just five weeks to go before a critical midterm election that will determine which party controls Congress and the fate of the last two years of the Bush presidency, the resignation of Republican Florida Congressman Mark Foley has the potential to shake up a volatile electorate and tilt the advantage to the Democrats.
Foley resigned Friday after ABC News disclosed sexual, personal e-mails and instant messages he had sent to minors who had worked on Capitol Hill.
Republican officials have tried to distance themselves from Foley by denouncing him in strong terms, and are now calling for a criminal investigation. But the emerging chronology -- in which several senior Republican House officials, including the office of the Speaker of the House, had knowledge of some of Foley's behavior -- is certain to keep the GOP on the defensive for some time.
Democrats are eager to express outrage, in part genuine, but also in part because they see a chance to make political hay over several favored themes -- that Republicans are out of touch with real Americans, have presided over a culture of corruption, and must be replaced if America wants a change in the country's direction.
In the short term, Democrats find themselves in an unusual and unexpected position, with the upper hand on family values, issues and ethics, and Republicans are trying to change the subject. But in every congressional race in the country, Democrats will be demanding a fast investigation, of not only Foley, but of the Republican leaders who failed to look into the Florida congressman's actions after they learned of his communication with one Louisiana boy who had worked as part of the congressional page program, which brings young people to Washington to perform tasks such as delivering messages.
Senior House leadership aides and Republican strategists recognize that their best hope is to acknowledge that they made a series of mistakes in failing to look more closely at Foley's actions.
But such contrition might not be enough. Already, Democrats, who need to win back only fifteen seats to take control of the House and six to gain the Senate majority, are pressing for an investigation that will conclude well before the election, giving voters time to stew over the details. Foley's seat, safely Republican before the scandal, is now very much in play, and Democratic strategists believe they can parlay this into widening the playing field of potential pick ups.
Politicians hate uncertainty above all else. As the details of Foley's actions -- and Republican inaction -- continue to emerge, Republicans are worried about what will happen, and Democrats are certain that this is the kind of favorable political development that they will need to take control of Congress.