Had it been an isolated incident, the resignation from Congress of California Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham after he admitted taking a $2.4 million bribe might have been a blip on the way to a special election.
But as yet another corruption case involving prominent members of Congress, mainly Republicans, it's fueling a scandal that is opening a window on big- money politics in Washington and shifting prospects for midterm elections.
"It's a problem for Republicans as far as their image is concerned. And it's also a problem for individual seats," says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and former opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee.
At least seven members of Congress are facing indictments, investigations, or criminal charges on issues ranging from bribery and securities fraud to campaign-finance violations. Last week, Michael Scanlon, an associate of former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors on a bribery investigation that seems likely to involve more lawmakers.
Former House majority leader Tom DeLay stepped down after an indictment by a Texas grand jury on campaign- finance violations. Senate majority leader Bill Frist has been asked to testify in federal investigations of his stock sale involving a family business. Reps. Bob Ney (R) of Ohio and John Doolittle (R) of California, and Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana have also surfaced in news reports as potential targets of bribery investigations.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi describes all these cases as part of a GOP "culture of corruption," and is ramping up for a national campaign on the issue in 2006. So far, one Democrat, Rep. William Jefferson (D) of Louisiana, faces investigation by the Justice Department over a telecommunications deal.
The fact that other Democrats may also be drawn into a growing influence scandal in Washington may not save Republicans from a backlash at the polls, says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. "...The fact is that if you're the party in power, it falls on you," he says.