Last year Ohio Republican Representative Bob Ney, one of Tom DeLay's lieutenants, coasted to re-election by a 2-to-1 margin over an obscure foe. Next year Ney will face an aggressive, well-financed challenge from a former state legislator who is currently the Democratic mayor of one of his district's largest cities.
Why the sharp rise in Democratic prospects? Was it mounting frustration with the Iraq War? Concern about the damage done to Ohio's industries by Bush Administration free-trade policies? DeLay's indictment? All were factors in Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer's decision to take on Ney. But the real appeal of the race — as it is with contests involving a growing number of GOP Congressmen — is Ney's link to an old-fashioned bribery and influence-peddling scandal that has already sullied the reputations of some of Washington's most powerful Republicans and that could muddy the 2006 re-election prospects of dozens more.
The burgeoning controversy surrounding Jack Abramoff, a conservative lobbyist whose Washington ties stretched deep into the Bush White House and the Republican Capitol, has yet to gain anywhere near the media attention accorded the CIA Plamegate leak investigation or DeLay's indictment. Yet with the bank fraud indictment of Abramoff now part of a Florida grand jury inquiry and the guilty plea by Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide who became Abramoff's partner, on charges of conspiring to bribe a Congressman, the scandal is creating headaches for Republicans — and opportunities for Democrats to turn a national scandal into political pay dirt. Even the Wall Street Journal admits that the Abramoff imbroglio "raises the risk of serious embarrassment to the [GOP] before next year's congressional elections."
Ohio's Sulzer is making the risk a reality with an in-your-face challenge to Ney, who accepted overseas trips, gifts and hefty campaign donations from Abramoff, allegedly in exchange for using his office to advance the interests of the Indian tribes and casinos that were Abramoff's big-ticket clients. Sulzer says Ohioans "need a Congressman who will... be getting headlines for providing better healthcare or better jobs for our district, not for ethics scandals and investigations."
There is every reason to believe that candidates in other states can pick up on that theme. Ney is, after all, only "Representative No. 1" in the Justice Department investigation of how Abramoff used ties to top Republicans — going back to college alliances with Grover Norquist, one of Washington's best-connected conservative activists, and Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition — to build a powerful D.C. lobbying operation. The investigation is already examining his relationships with DeLay, Representative John Doolittle and Senator Conrad Burns, as well as seventeen current and former Congressional aides and two former Bush Administration officials. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.