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Foley Debacle Tests District Loyalties

The response among Republican constituents is mixed. But having his name still on the ballot may cost the GOP votes.

October 03, 2006|Jenny Jarvie and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

JUPITER, Fla. — Mark Child voted for Rep Mark Foley two years ago, and expected to vote for him again in November. But after the disclosure that the politician had been sending sexually suggestive Internet messages to teenage boys working as congressional pages, Child is not sure what he will do.

"I'm a Republican, but I don't always vote Republican," the 48-year-old carpenter said as he dined at the Tabica Grill here. "I feel betrayed."

His wife, Sandra, shuddered at the idea of seeing Foley's name on the ballot.

"We have children," said the 47-year-old nurse. "You put a person in Congress and you expect them to do their job. He did a good job, but he was overcome by his demons."

Foley's sexually charged Internet exchanges with minors prompted widespread reactions of disbelief and disgust in his home district, suggesting that the party may face an uphill challenge in convincing voters that the seat, once considered a Republican lock, should remain in the party's hands.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Foley reaction: An article in Tuesday's Section A about reaction to disclosures that former Republican Rep. Mark Foley had sent explicit e-mails to congressional pages indicated that onetime Florida congressional candidate Robin Rorapaugh was a man. Rorapaugh is a woman.

"I'm very disappointed, particularly that Republican leaders in Washington knew about it," said Paul Levine, a 64-year-old retiree. "It's absolutely inexcusable, it's criminal they didn't expose that. They covered it up."

Florida Republican officials, meanwhile, tried to recover from the shock of Foley's resignation and began working to elect another candidate to the seat. That will require Florida Republicans to persuade voters to cast ballots for the disgraced incumbent, even though he has resigned.

Under Florida law, Foley's name will remain on the ballot, which has already been printed. But the replacement candidate Republicans selected Monday, state Rep. Joe Negron, will receive any votes cast for Foley.

"I don't know that it's going to be possible, but our job is to get voters to look beyond the name," said Bill Lents, chairman of the St. Lucie County Republican Party. "One idea being kicked around is 'wrong name, right party.' That's a message we have to get across, and it's not going to be easy, but that's our job."

Not everyone in Jupiter, a small coastal town of 46,000 at the mouth of the Loxahatchee River in Palm Beach County, had heard of the scandal -- and some who had said they remained loyal to the GOP.

"I'm a Republican -- this isn't going to change that," said Richard Engstrom, a 58-year-old accountant, as he crossed the parking lot of a Wal-Mart here. "Some people are easily swayed. But I don't think this means the Democrats will get in."

The precedent for the decision to keep Foley's name on the ballot but count his votes toward someone else happened in 2004, when Florida Democrat Jim Stork withdrew from a race against incumbent Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., citing health reasons.

After state elections officials ruled that it was too late to remove Stork's name from the ballot, Florida Democrats won an injunction allowing them to name congressional aide Robin Rorapaugh as the party's candidate, and have votes for Stork count for him.

Barring a legal challenge, the same outcome is expected in the Nov. 7 election for Foley's old seat, requiring Republicans to remind voters of Foley at the same time the party seeks to distance itself from him.

"That's going to cause confusion with voters who will have assumed we had got rid of this guy," said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. The district "was widely seen as a safe Republican seat -- until three days ago," he added.

The jigsaw piece of a political district Foley represented stretches across the heart of south central Florida, and includes urban and rural, as well as rich and poor, areas. It goes from Port Charlotte on the Gulf of Mexico, up and over the west and north shore of Lake Okeechobee, east through Port St. Lucie and Stuart on the Atlantic Coast, then south and slightly inland to Royal Palm Beach and Wellington.

The district, which had 202,500 registered Republicans and 170,369 registered Democrats as of Aug. 7, according to Florida's election division, once had more GOP voters. But some were sheared off in 2002 and added to a neighboring district held by Shaw, who had nearly lost a close reelection battle.

Some Republican officials admitted they were still reeling from the news about Foley, a popular moderate who had won reelection two years ago with 68% of the vote. But they said it was time to press on.

"This is someone I was a close political friend of, and it was a punch right to the gut," said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party.

Before learning Monday that Foley had checked himself into an alcoholism treatment center, Dinerstein said, "We worried whether he was alive, frankly. No one had heard from him.

"But this is politics. We have to go forward. It helps that the Democrat was out here with John Kerry last week. That gets the Republican base fired up."

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