In Illinois, drawing a moral line in politics
Barney Frank survived it. So did Bill Clinton - albeit with an impeachment - and Arnold Schwarzenegger.Skip to next paragraph
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In recent years, a growing number of politicians and political candidates have had their names tarnished by sex scandals and yet stayed in power.
Yet Jack Ryan's downfall last week - which began when the Illinois Senate candidate's custody papers were unsealed Monday and culminated in his stepping out of the race on Friday - illustrates that there are limits to what voters will accept, especially in Middle America.
Now, the Republican party here is left struggling - not only to find a candidate who can mount a credible campaign against popular Democratic candidate Barack Obama, but to minimize the peripheral damage to a party that was already reeling from a different scandal.
Nationally, it makes the loss of a GOP Senate seat - already likely even before the Ryan revelations - even more probable. To politicians across the country, it sends a renewed message about Americans tolerance for scandal - or the appearance of scandal. "Ryan confirms that even today there are some things you cannot survive," says Robert George, a political scientist at Princeton University. "Illinois is interesting because it's not the most conservative state, or the most liberal. It's a pretty good statement of where America is...."
This is the second time in this Senate race that sealed divorce papers have had a devastating effect. During the primary, Democratic candidate Blair Hull was leading in the polls until he released divorce files showing that one of his ex-wives had accused him of abuse and taken out a court order against him.
Ryan was also pressured to unseal his files, but refused, citing protection of his 9-year-old son. When a California judge finally released the files, voters here learned that Ryan's former wife, actress Jeri Ryan, had accused him of taking her to sex clubs and asking her to have sex with him in front of others. Ryan, in the files, denied the charges, admitting only that they had gone to "one avant-garde nightclub," where they both felt uncomfortable and left.
It's rare when a political sex scandal involves neither spousal cheating nor broken laws, nor even sex that actually takes place. But for Illinois residents - and in particular the conservative Republicans and downstate voters to whom Ryan was appealing - the allegations, most experts agree, were just a little too bizarre for him to survive.
"The Republican Party in Illinois has a large component of conservatives and the Christian right. As soon as those headlines came up, Ryan lost a third of his votes," says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and political scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The charges were particularly damaging because Ryan had run on such a clean-cut image: successful businessman who had left investment banking to teach at an inner-city school.
In fact, who the candidate is and the image that he or she creates can have a huge effect on a scandal's impact. Take Mr. Schwarzenegger, and the numerous charges of sexual harassment on movie sets that barely registered in the candidate's standing while he was running for California governor. "You accuse the Terminator of being rough with women, and you're not exactly telling people something that's not in the character they envision for him," says Suzanne Garment, author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics."