WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom DeLay’s decision to retire from Congress will do little to help his embattled party retain control of the legislature in November’s elections and won’t erase his image as a poster child for corruption.
It leaves unchanged the larger dynamics of this year’s congressional elections: deep dissatisfaction with President Bush, the war in Iraq and problems in the Republican base over such issues as immigration and federal spending.
Even with the Texas Republican leaving Congress, he’ll remain a symbol that Democrats will burn into voters’ minds with ads next fall. They’ll relentlessly hammer the former House majority leader who cemented close ties between Congress and lobbyists and who was engulfed by a lobbying scandal that already had snared two of his former top aides and a close friend, lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
“Tom DeLay may be gone, but he’s not forgotten,” said John Zogby, an independent pollster.
His resignation, expected within the next two months, should help Republicans retain his suburban Houston district, where he easily could have lost the seat he has held since 1984. With a fresh candidate, Republicans have a much better chance there. That’s important in a year when a net loss of just 15 seats would cost Republicans control of the House of Representatives.
But it won’t shift the national tide.
DeLay, who will turn 59 on Saturday, formally announced his decision to step down Tuesday after alerting supporters and reporters the evening before. The decision came three days after a former close aide, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty to corruption charges and said that he, like other DeLay allies before him, would cooperate in a continuing investigation.
DeLay said the corruption investigation had nothing to do with his decision, that he wasn’t its target and that he resigned only to let voters focus on Republican ideas instead of controversy associated with him.
“I could have won this seat, but it would have been nasty,” DeLay told Fox News.
Republicans hoped that DeLay’s decision would put his controversial House tenure and its connection to scandal behind them.
“Our party will continue to succeed because we’re the party of ideas,” President Bush said when he was asked about DeLay on Tuesday.
“House Republicans will continue to move forward with an aggressive agenda,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Democrats refused to join the political eulogy.
“DeLay is a symptom of a larger disease,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said, “a sick Republican culture of corruption that touches everyone who took his dirty money, voted for his corrupt leadership or sat silently while their party has sold our government to the highest bidder.”
Many issues are breaking the Democrats’ way as election season nears.
“I don’t think it (DeLay’s resignation) alters the fundamental landscape,” said independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who closely tracks congressional races. “The campaign is still more about George Bush and Iraq.”
And when the campaign turns to other issues, one of them is ethics and scandal in Congress. That’s not good for Republicans.
There could be more criminal charges or even trials this year to remind voters of congressional corruption.
And even if DeLay isn’t indicted in connection with the Abramoff-congressional scandal, he faces trial in Texas on campaign-finance charges.
“He’s still going to be in the news,” said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “His name is still going to be present, keeping ethics and scandal alive.”
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Democrats will see to that.
“Republicans can try to move on now, arguing that DeLay’s exit is a bright line. But I don’t think it’s going to be that easy,” Rothenberg said. “The Democrats will keep pounding on ethics. … The Democrats still have the edge for the cycle. The ethics issue is still an advantage for the Democrats.”
Republicans take some solace from polls showing that about a third of Americans blame both major political parties for corruption. But among those who choose sides, they blame Republicans more than Democrats by 31 to 14 percent, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
“This is an ancillary issue,” Zogby said. “But it could become a powerful ancillary issue.”
(EDITORS: The Pew Research Center poll of 1,502 adults was conducted Feb. 1-5 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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