By Hans Nichols - 03/17/05 12:00 AM EST
Democratic House leaders are casting about for squeaky-clean congressional candidates — even if they’re long shots — to challenge prominent GOP incumbents who have been tainted by news reports of their allegedly unseemly connection to lobbyists.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) strategy, still in development, aims to make ethical charges the touchstone of those campaigns and would use several high-profile local races to create a national image of corruption in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.
Several Democratic lawmakers and aides said that Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) will be the first target of this new strategy.
Explicitly borrowing from the anti-corruption planks in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” and hoping to replicate the 1994 watershed victory that followed, the new plan suggests that Democratic leaders believe they need to weave themes of abuse of power into any successful campaign to recapture the House.
DCCC Chairman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) said questions about strategy and targeting Ney are premature, but several lawmakers and aides confirmed that Democrats are actively looking for candidates to run good-government campaigns against Ney and possibly House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
“There’s no doubt that we’ll be going after Ney on ethics,” a knowledgeable lawmaker said. “There will be other races like Ney’s as well. It’s fair to say that ethics is going to be a national issue in this campaign.”
Another lawmaker said, “Ney gets higher on our list every day.”
Ney spokesman Brain Walsh said, “Congressman Ney has felt all along that petty, partisan politics have been the driving force behind many of the ethics-related news stories we have seen recently, and he’s actually glad that some Democrats finally had the courage to admit it, albeit on background.
“They are trying hard to create this smokescreen by obstructing the business of the American people and spinning false ethics stories, but at the end of the day they are going to have to be accountable to the voters, and that is a fight that Congressman Ney welcomes.”
Even some Ohio Democrats said that Ney’s seat is secure and that he has the blue-collar district firmly shored up. Ney won his sixth term in November with 66 percent of the vote. He was not even challenged in his previous bid.
But Bill Burton, a DCCC spokesman, insisted that Ney’s seat is winnable for the Democrats. “We’re not trying to send a message; we’re trying to win every seat. We have a strong Democrat bench out there, including the former Senate minority leader from New Philadelphia, Greg Didinato, and State Rep. John Boccieri from New Middletown.”
The DCCC’s decision to make ethics a mainstay of tactics in the 109th Congress and in the 2006 campaign is being welcomed by party strategists and senior aides.
“Rahm is right to make Bob Ney a major target. The district is exactly the kind that Democrats need to pick up, and his ethical troubles make him vulnerable in a way that he hasn’t been in the past,” a Democratic aide said.
Another aide, this one a leadership aide, said, “In 1994, ethics and abuse-of-power charges was one of the rallying cries of the Contract with America, and it worked.”
Ney has come under fire from Democrats for his association with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and that has formed the brunt of some of the political charges against him. Ney tried to insert a provision into an election-reform bill that was beneficial to an Indian tribe represented by Abramoff but was rebuffed by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), according to an account in The Washington Post.