2006 Election: The Year of the Scandal

Oct. 19, 2006 — -- Fighting for every last Republican congressional seat, President Bush campaigned today for a congressman who may lose because his former mistress has accused him of assaulting her.

"I'm please to be here for Don Sherwood," Bush said. "He is the right man."

Congressman Don Sherwood's former mistress sued Sherwood, the married father of three daughters. They settled, but after the story broke none of it went over too well in his conservative northeastern Pennsylvania district.

It is a fact exploited this year by Sherwood's Democratic opponent, Chris Carney, in myriad television ads that cite voters claiming that while "Sherwood campaigned on family values, he has no family values."

Sherwood has apologized for the affair, while denying the assault charge, in his own TV ad. The unusual televised mea culpa features the silver-haired man chastened, saying, "I made a mistake that nearly cost me the love of my wife Carolyn and our daughter."

It's a year wracked with scandals and the fate of the Congress in no small way could hinge on human frailties -- who took bribes, cheated on his wife or creeped out congressional pages.

It seems like every day there's another grim story involving allegations of corruption, sleaze, or human weakness.

Today the House Ethics Committee continued its investigation into the page scandal involving ex-Rep. Mark Foley and who, if anyone, in the Republican leadership knew about Foley's inappropriate behavior with pages.

This week, the FBI conducted raids on offices and homes looking into whether Congressman Curt Weldon improperly steered overseas contracts to his daughter; Weldon denies any wrongdoing.

In the past year alone four senior Republicans have been forced out of Congress under ethical clouds:

Tom Delay of Texas, awaiting trial for charges of money laundering and conspiracy.

Bob Ney of Ohio, who pleaded guilty to bribery charges.

Duke Cunningham of California, who is in prison for accepting millions in bribes.

And the Internet-savvy Mark Foley of Florida.

"Four resignations is a big deal in the scheme of things, but it's the allegations involved," said Mark Halperin, Political Director of ABC News. "Things like taking bribes, sending inappropriate e-mails, dealing with lobbyists -- it's the kind of things that American people can glom onto and Democrats hope they'll associate that with not just those four members but all Republicans in Congress."

The scandals ripple beyond just those four. In upstate New York, Congressman Tom Reynolds -- chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee -- his own mea culpa TV ad in which he begged for forgiveness for not snagging Foley sooner, even though he'd been notified about an inappropriate e-mail Foley sent a former page months before the scandal broke.

"Nobody's angrier and more disappointed than me that I didn't catch his lies," Reynolds says. "I trusted that others had investigated. Looking back, more should have been done and for that, I am sorry."

Democrats are trying to tar Republicans with the Foley scandal. In Ohio, a TV ad was aired in the 15th District race: "Deborah Pryce's friend, Mark Foley is caught using his position to take advantage of 16-year-old pages."

The connections Democrats are trying to draw aren't always direct. An Indiana ad faults Republican Congressman Mike Sodrel not for connections to Foley, but for taking money from House Republican leaders whose connection to the Foley scandal is still being investigated.

"Seventy-seven thousand dollars came from the House leadership who knew about but did nothing to stop sexual predator Congressman Foley," said the ad from Democrat Baron Hill.

Democrats are also wielding as a weapon the scandal involving crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a convicted felon.

"Conrad Burns was the number one friend of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates," said the Democratic ad against the Montana Republican Senator.

Many of the scandals littering the road to Washington are pretty local -- and not even necessarily true.

A Democratic flier slams Rep. Mike Ferguson, R-N.J., for allegedly hitting on a college girl while drunk at a Georgetown bar. Ferguson denies the girl's version of events, which appeared in the Washington Post's gossip column in 2003, and the bar manager who witnessed the whole thing calls her story and the Democratic flier "false and fabricated."

David Nelson tells ABC News that he was advised by the bar owner not to have any comment when reporters called even though Ferguson's staff asked him to tell reporters what had happened. He regrets that decision.

"What she said isn't true," Nelson said after being shown the flier, "and these fliers are wrong. He's a married man, with kids -- the story's false and he shouldn't have to go through this, politics aside."

And of course there are the numerous ads invoking Senator George Allen's horrible summer full of accusations of racial insensitivity.

Not all the scandals are Republican ... Rep. Al Mollohan, D-W.Va., was forced to step down from the House Ethics Committee amidst questions about his financial dealings, which he insists are all above board.

"Mollohan steered hundreds of thousands of dollars towards organizations he helped set up that are controlled by associates and former aides who also gave him money for his political campaign," says an ad from the Economic Freedom Fund.

Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., is under FBI investigation for alleged bribery. And though he denies any wrongdoing, the Louisiana Democratic Party didn't endorse him in his primary last weekend.

But only one Democratic scandal seems to really be having any major effect on the elections. New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez' dealings with a non-profit agency are being investigated by the U.S. Attorney's office, which his Republican opponent Tom Kean Jr. is eager to remind voters.

"Bob Menendez steered over $300,00 of taxpayer money into his own pocket," Kean says in a recent ad.

"The irony is that while the Democrats may be able to use these scandals to take over the House, in the Senate one Democratic Senator's problems might cost them control," Halperin said.

Across the river in Pennsylvania today, President Bush's only acknowledgment of the Sherwood scandal came in a reference to a letter that voters received from Sherwood's wife Carol over the weekend decrying the attacks against her husband's character and saying she and her husband "are slowly and surely rebuilding our family."

"I read Carol Sherwood's letter to the citizens of this district," Bush said. "I was deeply moved by her words. The letter shows what a caring and courageous woman she is."

Democrats attacked the president for visiting Sherwood, especially during what the White House has designated as "National Character Counts" week.

But there is something that may count more with both parties than character -- power. And victory in November.