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Will recent GOP sex scandals affect upcoming races?

  • Story Highlights
  • Gov. Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina, recently admitted to affair
  • Weeks before, GOP Sen. John Ensign of Nevada also admitted to affair
  • The scandals may affect the GOP's image in 2010 races
From Ed Hornick
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It has been a rocky couple of weeks for the Republican Party as high-profile, traditional-values politicians have faced embarrassing sex scandals.

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada is considered a rising star in the Republican Party.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford admits to an affair Wednesday at the state Capitol in Columbia.

First it was Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, who admitted in a news conference two weeks ago to having an affair with a former staffer.

Then, last week, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford trumped Ensign.

After days in which his whereabouts were unknown by his wife and staff (who thought he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail), Sanford held a tear-filled and rambling news conference to admit to an affair with an Argentine woman, and to apologize to his staff and the voters of South Carolina for not disclosing where he was.

Republicans and Democrats panned the scandal. And for social conservatives, who stand on principles of traditional marriage and family values, it was a hard blow. Video Watch more on Sanford's scandal »

Michelle Malkin, a controversial columnist, has in the past lambasted Democrats for unbecoming personal behavior. But she was especially harsh with Sanford's infidelity.

"Mark Sanford: Bastard," she wrote on her blog. "If you missed Sanford's rambling, surreal disaster of a press conference, consider yourself lucky. ... If you can't honor your marriage vows, how can you expect voters to trust you to honor your damned oath of office?"

The question going forward is: Will the recent scandals remain on the public's mind come November 2010, when voters go to the polls in congressional midterm elections?

Mark Preston, CNN political editor, said these scandals are hurting the party's already tarnished image, but they may not have a major effect on upcoming races.

"These scandals have hurt the Republican Party's image at a time when the GOP is trying to re-establish its brand," he said. "Still, with the exception of [Louisiana Sen. David] Vitter's own re-election contest, I doubt these three scandals will have much, if any, influence on the 2010 midterms."

Former Florida GOP Rep. Mark Foley came under fire before the 2006 midterm elections -- when Democrats gained significant congressional seats -- for allegedly sending sexually inappropriate e-mails and chats to male Capitol Hill pages. He later resigned and checked into rehab.

The scandal, some say, hurt the party's socially conservative values platform and gave voters a reason to elect Democrats.

James Carville, a Democratic strategist and CNN contributor, says Republicans need a change in rhetoric before the 2010 and 2012 elections.

"If they go back to this what-do-we-tell-the-children, family values stuff, I'll lead the attack on them," he said. "If they just leave it alone, and say, 'you know, we're all human beings, we're all capable of falling, let's concentrate on policy,' then that's fine. Let's move on to the next thing."

Carville is no stranger to politicians under fire for affairs. He was, after all, a key confidant of former President Bill Clinton's as the Monica Lewinsky affair gripped the country.

But Sanford, a conservative Christian, has long portrayed himself as a model family man. While he asked for his state's forgiveness, his hypocrisy, and that of other Republicans of late, may exhaust the patience of Bible Belt voters. Video Watch CNN iReporters discuss cheating politicians »

"A lot of Bible-steeped power brokers will still give him a pass," said John Jeter, a South Carolina writer whose new novel, "The Plunder Room," examines Southern mores. "But American and especially Southern conservatism is going to have to find a new kind of face."

And that face has eroded over the years with other high-profile GOP figures' fall from grace.

In July 2007, Vitter, the Louisiana Republican, apologized for a "very serious sin in my past" after his phone number showed up in the records of Pamela Martin and Associates, an escort service run by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, also known as the D.C. Madam.

Vitter, married with kids, is in his first Senate term after serving in the House from 1999 to 2004. Despite calls for his resignation, Vitter remains in the Senate and faces an upcoming election.

Former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican, faced an embarrassing saga after his June 2007 arrest in an airport in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Picked up during a police sting targeting lewd behavior in the airport's restrooms, Craig pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge in August 2007. No sexual contact is alleged to have taken place, but the officer who arrested the senator said Craig moved his foot to touch the officer's foot in another stall.

Craig, who is married, said he did not make any "inappropriate contact," called his guilty plea a "poor decision" and denied being gay.

But the Sanford saga is resonating so prolifically because, as one writer notes, he was a rising star in the Republican Party and a legitimate candidate for president in 2012.

"News of Senator John Ensign's affair broke less than two weeks earlier. Having another extramarital affair hit the news so soon afterwards is frustrating and disturbing to the party faithful," John Hawkins wrote on the Pajamas Media Web site. "Seeing his potential thrown away like this is nothing short of tragic for those who had hopes for him."

Analysts say that Democrats may see the recent scandals as something to use in campaign ads come 2010. But Republicans are hardly alone in the sex scandal department.

Last year, Former Democratic Sen. John Edwards admitted to having an affair with Rielle Hunter, who was paid by the Edwards campaign to develop Web videos. The news about Edwards -- a self-professed family man who touted his marriage on the campaign trail -- set off a firestorm over hypocritical politicians. Edwards, however, has continued to deny rumors that he is the father of Hunter's child.

And then there is Eliot Spitzer, whose fall from grace rocked not only New York politics but sent shock waves through the Democratic Party. The former governor was identified by authorities as client number nine in a prostitution ring. Spitzer, the former attorney general of the state, had spent much of his career cracking down on prostitution and other such crimes.

But despite party affiliation, it is clear that sex scandals involving politicians who preach one thing and live another do not sit well with constituents.

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, considered to be a possible 2012 GOP presidential candidate, summed up the general dark cloud hanging over his party now.

"Clearly there's been damage," Pawlenty said. "Anytime you have leading figures who are engaged in behavior that is sad and troubling and hypocritical, other people are going to look at that and say, 'They don't walk the walk.' ... And so the words and the actions don't ring true."

Time.com's Tim Padgett contributed to this report.

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