Republicans are already facing a lot of trouble going into the 2008 competition for control of the Senate. And, now, they've got a prostitution problem -- invloving Louisiana Senator David "Family Values" Vitter -- that could cost the party another seat.
After losing control of the Senate in 2006, Republicans have to turn around and defend all the seats the party's candidates won in the party's 2002 sweep. With President Bush's approval numbers in the tank, and with the most of the senators tied by their votes to an unpopular war, that won't be easy.
The GOP's got to defend a number of incumbents who are vulnerable because of their closeness to the Bush administration -- Maine's Susan Collins, Minnesota's Norm Coleman, New Hampshire's John Sununu. Several of their "secure" incumbents are suddenly looking less secure because of ethical scandals, including senior senators Ted Stevens of Alaska and New Mexico's Pete Domenici. And their newest senator, Wyoming's John Barrasso, was appointed rather than elected and must face voters in a western state where the Democrats are showing previous unimagined signs of life.
But the toughest challenge the party faces could involve the senator who was not even supposed to be on the ballot next year.
Louisiana Vitter, a former congressman who was elected with ease in 2004, is having an increasingly hard time explaining his penchant for paying prostitutes -- in Washington and New Orleans -- to have help him commit "a very serious sin."
Vitter is not the first Louisiana politician to let the good times roll. But as a social conservative who has not hesitated to attack the morality of others, he is facing charges of the sort of hypocrisy that could force him from office.
How serious is the discussion about resignation? One prominent conservative, senior State Department official Randall Tobias, quit his position in April after it was revealed that he had frequently the D.C. escort service to which Vitter's name has now been linked.
And at least one prominent Louisiana Republican says Vitter should follow Tobias' lead.
On Tuesday, Louisiana Republican State Central Committeeman Vincent Bruno called on Vitter to resign "for his own good, the good of the party and the good of his family."
Bruno says that if Vitter fails to leave office after the revelations about how he is apparently hooked on hookers, Bruno suggested that the Senator might want to "join the Democratic Party where they think that kind of behavior is OK."
Yes, that's a cheap shot that's short on accuracy. But Bruno's concern about what Vitter's continued service in the Senate might do to the image of the Republican Party is sincere -- and appropriate.
"If (Republican leaders are) not going to enforce family values, they ought to take it out of the vocabulary," says Bruno, a longtime critic of Vitter who has in the past suggested that the senator had a problem when it comes to defending the sanctity of his own marriage.
Should Vitter remain in office, says the Republican state committeeman, then: "We're the party of hypocrites: 'Vote for us and we'll lie to you, we'll engage prostitutes and we'll cheat on our wives.'"
That's strong talk. But it is directed at a man who, in addition to hypocrisy, has by every indication violated the laws of his home state and the nation's capital city.
If Vitter were to resign, the Democrats are all but certain to gain a Senate seat.
Under's Louisiana's Election Code, the governor picks the replacement for a U.S. senator who leaves office before his or her term is done.
Louisiana's governor is a Democrat, Kathleen Blanco.
Blanco's not running for reelection this year, so there is little likelihood that she would bother to try and win favor with Republicans by appointing one of their number to replace Vitter.
To be sure, any appointment would be temporary.
According to Louisiana's election code, a special election would have to be held -- perhaps this year, perhaps next, depending on when Vitter might leave office.
By the time the special election rolls around, however, the Democrat would have the advantage of incumbency in a state that -- even after losing a lot of Democratic voters from New Orleans in the post-Hurricane Katrina exodus -- could probably still elect the right Democrat to a Senate seat. Amusingly, that right Democrat might be Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, whose sister Mary holds the state's other Senate seat. Two-term State Treasurer John Kennedy is another prospect, as is south Louisiana Congressman Charlie Melancon.
Look for the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign committee to be in a most forgiving mood with regard to Vitter's transgressions. They can't afford to lose him because they can't afford to have another Senate seat in play during a cycle that already looks like a rough one for the party.
But even the best efforts of Bush and his congressional cronies may not be enough to save a senator whose story is starting to sound like the script for a very bad TV movie -- or, perhaps, a film that would not be rated for family viewing.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"