WASHINGTON – A sex scandal involving a teenage House page and a six-term congressman. Claims of molestation as a teenager by a clergyman. Two resignations in the can and the possibility of more to come. The combined elements make the classic "October surprise."
Political junkies call the shocking scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley the campaign season-ender they've been waiting for.
"This Foley thing — no one saw that coming," said Sean Evans, a political science professor at Union University in Tennessee.
Foley resigned on the last day of the congressional session Sept. 29 after being questioned about sexually explicit instant messages with a former page. Since the story broke a week ago, a firestorm has erupted on Capitol Hill as other former pages have come forward with suggestive stories about Foley.
The finger-pointing of GOP leaders and their aides has added to the headlines as House Speaker Dennis Hastert and others in the leadership try to hang onto their posts. Kirk Fordham, former chief of staff to House Republican campaign chief Tom Reynolds, quit his job Wednesday after being accused of trying to paper over Foley's behavior. He denies doing anything of the kind.
"The Republicans have been handed a surprise they never expected," said Chuck Pena, a national security analyst at the Independence Institute, who up until this week, believed anything new to upset the apple cart would come in the form of a dramatic capture of terror chief Usama Bin Laden or even air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The Legend of the October Surprise
The October surprise is defined as the singular political bombshell, the myth-making event just ahead of Election Day that promises to tip the political scales so clearly in favor of one candidate or party that victory is almost certain. Most of the time, the surprise comes in the form of hotly-contested, but not always proven, assertions that stun voters out of their apathy.
By Wednesday of this week, news reports and political punditry were already referring to the congressional page scandal as the "Foley October Surprise." Some of the headlines included: "October Surprise! Will This Sex Scandal Destroy the Republicans?" and "October Surprise in This Campaign Puts Republicans On the Spot."
"Will Republicans get their message through among the barrage of October surprise bombshells?" asked Jim Geraghty of the conservative National Review magazine.
Months ago, the theory du jour was that President Bush would announce a major withdrawal of troops from Iraq just before Election Day. But with violence continuing to rock Iraq, those rumors faded away by midsummer. Lately, falling gas prices have also been credited to White House political strategist Karl Rove and the GOP.
Most theories on what the October surprise may be are based on pre-conceived notions about the political parties and their usual spheres of influence.
Randy Tichnell, an official for the Preston County Democratic Party in West Virginia, said it is not unusual to hear drivers talk suspiciously about dropping prices at the pump, even though prices tend to fall every year after the summer driving season.
Falling gas prices "definitely helps the consumer," and therefore, the incumbent party, Tichnell said. "Don't get me wrong here, but they say, 'Are they dumb enough to think we don't know what they are doing?'"
Another popular theory as to what this year's October surprise might have been or still could be is the carefully-timed capture of bin Laden. Analysts say that has been a top item since 2002, and for as long as he remains at-large, it will continue to be. Of course, that theory has its holes.
"In order to believe that, as a politically cynical October surprise, you would have to believe that [the Bush administration] could grab him at any old time," said Newsday columnist Ellis Hennican. "I don't believe it. But that would be the thing that could help [Republicans] right now."
Not so unserious thinkers familiar with Washington have been talking about possible air strikes on Iran as an option. They include former Sen. Gary Hart, who wrote in a Sept. 23 column on the Huffingtonpost Web log: "It should come as no surprise if the Bush administration undertakes a pre-emptive war against Iran sometime before the November election."
Analysts say the American voter is too savvy not to recognize an obviously scripted October surprise presented for blatant political advantage. Pena said he believes air strikes against Iran are in the serious planning stages, but it would be difficult, if not altogether impossible, to bank on it as the October surprise.
"Will a desperate administration do something to hold onto political power?" he asked.
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in a column last weekend that Democrats are more apt to and capable of dropping a bombshell on an unsuspecting Republican Party. He pointed to the Nov. 2, 2000, release of records detailing Bush's DUI arrest 24 years earlier.
Although the impact of the release is still a source of debate, Frum suggested it cost Bush the popular vote in the election held four days later.
"The fact is, that the most successful October surprise in any recent U.S. national election was carried off by Democrats, not Republicans," Frum wrote in Canada's National Post.
Just a Political Myth?
Some political aficionados say the idea of an orchestrated "October surprise" is one big urban legend. "The world is rarely as controllable as conspiracy buffs think," Hennican said.
As for the Bush DUI, Evans said he thought it made a small difference. "But I wouldn't say it was the difference in Bush losing the popular vote. There were other factors at play."
Evans suggested that while last-minute shockers have been known to affect individual races, they are rarely radioactive enough to taint an entire congressional election, at least in recent political history.
"You have politicians who fear things that are out of their control, but rarely, if ever, is there an October surprise that changes the course of an election [nationwide]," said Evans.
If October surprises have worked in the past, it was because the offended party couldn’t mount a successful response in time for the elections, said Hennican. That all has changed with the advent of 24-hour cable news and the Internet.
"It's almost like a dowdy term," he said of the October surprise. "It almost has to be a 'November 6 surprise' in the age of 24-hour new cycles."
Whether the Foley scandal yields the big results — a flip in the House majority — will be left up to the machinations and manipulations of party leaders and political operatives over the next month.
Already, Republicans are trying to gain back lost ground by arguing that Democrats are somehow partly responsible for the unfolding sex scandal.
"Foley October Surprise Is Showing Democrat Party Hypocrisy," read the Republican Web log, RedState.org.
Hennican said the parties will likely do whatever they can to maximize any leverage than can get as a result of the Foley scandal.
"I'm expecting everybody to throw anything they have — they are aggressive politicians fighting for their political lives," Hennican said. "If you have something in your pocket, it doesn't do any good to pull it out on Nov. 8."