The U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee is investigating a congressional sex scandal, and whether top Republicans in the House tried to cover it up. Just weeks away from congressional elections, political experts are considering the potential impact of the scandal on the large bloc of conservative Christian voters whose support is considered crucial to Republican victories.
In the 2004 elections, pollsters said conservative Christians made up about a quarter of the nation's voters and that nearly 80 percent of them voted for Republican candidates. This sizable constituency traditionally votes Republican because the party's platform is anti-abortion, opposed to gay marriage, and, in general, conforms to the Judeo-Christian perspective that traditional religious values are the foundation of personal morality as well as sound public policy.
But experts say that in the wake of the congressional sex scandal, the so-called values vote of the Christian Right is no longer a sure thing.
Republican Congressman Mark Foley resigned after allegations surfaced he had sent sexually explicit computer messages to a number of congressional pages. Pages are adolescent boys and girls, usually in their second year of high school, who work as support staff for members of Congress.
The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether top Republican Party officials knew for years about these inappropriate communications and tried to conceal them from the public.
Stephen Witham, a professor of government at Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, says that many of the values voters may be disappointed and hurt. "We would hope we would have the kind of people in Congress we could be proud of," he says. "Congress is a symbol and an image. So we would like to feel people are consistent in what they say and what they do."
Witham's hope is that Christian conservatives will put the congressional scandal behind them and that the election will be decided on issues related to the general security of our country. He adds that the Christian inclination is to forgive moral lapses. "I'm a bit of a realist to know that people are flawed. They will disappoint you from time to time, as we see right now."
John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C. think tank, says that since the Republican party champions traditional family values, many values voters "feel maybe the [Republican] leadership pays lip service to this and doesn't take care of its own house, so to speak." He says values voters see the scandal as evidence that "Republicans may not be as serious about the values issues they run on."
Fortier says that as the majority party in the House, the Republicans' duty should have been to protect the teenage pages from sexual predation and to inform Democratic Party colleagues if something seemed amiss.
"Republicans tried to deal with it informally, by just simply dealing with it on their side, having people talk to Representative Foley, rather than bringing it to a more formal place in the House where Republicans and Democrats would have been involved," Fortier says. "So it's not that the 'whole House didn't deal with it adequately.' We're faced with a situation where the Republican Party, itself, didn't deal with the situation."
But Fortier adds that Republican prospects in the upcoming elections didn't look good before the scandal broke last week. "Even before the Foley scandal, there were questions about the (possible) results. The momentum is on the Democratic side. The party that's out wants to change things," he says. "The Republicans were having troubles. So, especially in a mid-term [non-presidential] election like this, the 'out party' is unified in the opposition. They don't have to agree on everything. They don't like what they see, but they're ready to get out and vote. The voters who are the majority of the 'in-party' are usually a little disappointed in their party by the time of a second term, mid-term election. They've had six years in office. They've had high hopes and not everything they've wanted to do is there. They're lagging a little bit and less likely to turn out at the polls."
Fortier says that voters in both parties know a lot is at stake in this election, so, in the end, it's possible Christian conservatives will turn out in large numbers, especially because the Republican Party is well-organized and knows how to get out the vote. "They will be contacting these voters and in individual House races, they will remind them of the differences between the candidates and that a slightly less turnout makes a difference: an election where having a few extra seats makes the difference between being the majority or minority in the House of Representatives."
Recent polling of Christian conservatives by the Pew Research Center shows that the percentage who believe Republicans govern in a more honest and ethical way than Democrats has dropped from 55 percent to 42 percent since the start of the year. Republicans hope for a rebound before the elections on November 7th.