WASHINGTON — With legal problems buffeting GOP leaders in Congress and the White House, skittish Republicans are beginning to worry that the issue of ethics could strengthen Democrats' position in the 2006 elections.
The issue has rocketed to prominence as GOP power brokers have come under scrutiny, including President Bush's right-hand man, party leaders in both the House and Senate, and an influential Republican lobbyist.
Democrats are trying aggressively to spread the cloud to other Republicans and to make a broader case that the GOP has brought a "culture of corruption" to Washington. They are hoping to create an anti-establishment mood on par with the one Republicans brought about in 1994 that propelled the GOP to gain control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.
The Democrats have run ads criticizing questionable conduct by some Republicans. Liberal activists have shown up at town hall meetings conducted by GOP House members to spotlight the lawmakers' connections with Rep. Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who stepped down as House majority leader after being indicted on money-laundering and conspiracy charges. Democratic campaign operatives have recruited a bevy of nonpoliticians to run for the House as "outsider" candidates, hoping that will appeal to disillusioned voters.
A few House Republicans have responded by returning donations from DeLay, an effort to distance themselves from him.
One GOP lawmaker, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County, decided to retire rather than contend with ethical questions about his financial relationships with a defense contractor.
Polls last week underscored the sour mood of the electorate that Democrats hope to tap. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that just 28% of those surveyed believed the nation was heading in the right direction -- a 10-year low. And 48% said they wanted the Democrats to control Congress after the 2006 elections, compared with 39% who preferred the GOP.
It is too soon to know whether Democrats will reap concrete political gains from the growing focus on Washington ethics. But some Republicans are anxious that the issue will give ammunition to a Democratic Party that otherwise has had difficulty developing alternatives to Bush's domestic and foreign policies.
"This vague issue of corruption hanging over Republicans is not good, because it is the one thing on which Democrats don't have to have an alternative policy," said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.). "I don't want that cloud over us going into [next year's] elections."
But the cloud has been spreading over the last month.
In late September, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) came under federal investigation for possible insider trading; the next week, DeLay was indicted by a Texas grand jury investigating potential violations of the state's campaign finance law.
Republicans worry that any day now, Bush's political guru, Karl Rove, might be indicted by a federal grand jury investigating the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative. And through it all, the Justice Department and a Senate committee have been investigating allegations that Jack Abramoff, an influential GOP lobbyist who once was close to DeLay, bilked his clients.
"It's a tough atmosphere," said a GOP lobbyist who requested anonymity when discussing the subject. "You have Frist, DeLay, the Plame case, and you have Democrats with a theme: the culture of corruption and incompetence. [Republicans] are concerned that next year could be a bad year."
Most analysts believe the ethics issue has compounded other political problems the GOP faces: high gas prices, continued instability in Iraq and the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
For Republicans, perhaps the saving grace is that the elections are more than a year away.
"This is not the environment we want to have come next year," said David Winston, a Republican pollster.
But Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, brushed off suggestions that the party as a whole would be tainted by allegations against a handful of Republicans.
Using a potentially vulnerable House Republican in Connecticut as an example, Patru said: "Someone who supported Rob Simmons for three elections in a row is not going to vote against him because [Democrats] put out press releases connecting him to Abramoff -- who they don't know -- or DeLay."
Patru also argued that House races would turn on pocketbook issues such as the economy and jobs, not allegations of misconduct in Washington.
Democrats also confront major hurdles as they try to translate GOP weaknesses into electoral gains. Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to win control of the House, but they will be fighting on a small battlefield. Because congressional districts are drawn to ensure the reelection of incumbents, there are only a few competitive seats.