By Peter Savodnik - 12/08/05 12:00 AM EST
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is planning a public-relations offensive tying leading Democrats to lobbyist Jack Abramoff in an effort to neutralize accusations that Republicans have been embroiled in a “culture of corruption.”
The campaign will zero in on Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, both Michigan Democrats; and the Democratic Senatorial Committee (DSCC), among others, for taking money from Abramoff’s former clients.
Stabenow is up for reelection next year; Reid and Levin are not. With the entry of Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard (R) into the Senate race in Michigan, many leading Republicans believe they have a reasonable chance of unseating the first-term senator.
Republicans have spent months trying to blunt Democratic ethics charges. But the new communications blitz — which will include disseminating talking points to Capitol Hill Republicans and flooding local media with information linking Democrats to Abramoff — marks a more coordinated effort to halt the anti-GOP tide.
NRSC spokesman Brian Nick said the campaign committee would “be getting the resources” not only to senators up for reelection but to all members of the Republican Conference “so that they can offensively message that Democrats are playing partisan politics with an issue that involves all of Congress.”
Nick indicated the NRSC would almost certainly run television ads countering DSCC ads attacking Republicans for their association with Abramoff. “Anybody would be able to safely assume that there are going to have to be ads to respond to those ads,” Nick said, referring to the Democratic spots.
Democrats said the GOP media campaign reflects fears that some Republicans who had not been deemed vulnerable might lose next year. Topping that list, these Democrats said, is Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who has been attacked for his connections to Abramoff.
Fears of a rout of Republicans next year, members of both parties say, have metastasized in recent months, as White House officials and congressional Republicans have been ensnarled in a series of investigations, court hearings and, in some cases, bribery charges, including White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and former vice president Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (Calif.) and Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio).
“Now that the Republicans have gotten their hand caught in the cookie jar, they are doing whatever they can to divert attention from the corruption that has become the defining characteristic of the GOP majority,” DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said. “It’s not going to work.”
A Democratic aide in Washington said the ethics charges Democrats have lodged against Republicans could tip the balance in other key Senate battlegrounds: In Pennsylvania, Sen. Rick Santorum (R) has faced criticism for his alleged role in the K Street Project, which aimed to purge Democratic lobbyists from Washington.
Jay Reiff, who is managing Democratic state Treasurer Bob Casey’s campaign against Santorum, noted that Casey recently issued an ethics plan that would end the K Street Project and slow the “revolving door” between Capitol Hill and lobbying shops, among other provisions. Santorum’s media consultant, John Brabender, said Casey is trying to deflect charges lodged against the Democrat involving a fundraiser he held in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
In Florida, meanwhile, Rep. Katherine Harris (R) has been attacked for receiving $51,000 from two defense companies, MZM Inc. and ADCS Inc., associated with Cunningham, who resigned from Congress earlier this month after pleading guilty to bribery.
Harris, who is the GOP front-runner to take on Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2006, announced Friday she would donate the $51,000 to charity.
Nick, the NRSC spokesman, said there are mounds of evidence linking Democrats to Abramoff. He cited a $6,000 contribution from the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, an Abramoff client, to Stabenow; $322,000 from Abramoff clients to the DSCC; and $66,000 from Abramoff clients to Reid, among other contributions.
The Democratic aide countered that “political donations are part of the political process. There is nothing inherently wrong about receiving a political donation. It becomes an issue when it appears that services are being rendered for [it].”
Reid’s spokesman Jim Manley dismissed any suggestion of ethical wrongdoing on the senator’s part, adding that Reid has a long history of fighting an expansion of Indian gambling.
A Democratic source close to Stabenow said that the senator hadn’t been unduly influence by a Michigan Indian tribe but had simply met with, and received support from, some of her constituents.
“This is like trying to call out Debbie for working for GM,” he said.
Some Republican officials have drawn parallels between the party’s handling of the Abramoff scandal in 2005 and its effort to contain the Enron blow-up of 2002.
A GOP strategist agreed, pointing out that during the turmoil surrounding the corporate scandals, the NRSC put out a document that was more than 50 pages detailing Democratic ties to Enron.
“It’s good that they’re engaging on this issue to show the Democrats that this is not just a pox on their house,” the strategist said.