Bush Forgoes Liaison to House in ’04 Campaign

Posted January 16, 2004 at 3:44pm

In January 2000, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was serving as House liaison to the campaign of George W. Bush, helping the Texas governor collect endorsements from more than 160 House Republicans heading into the first presidential primaries.

Four years later, Bush’s re-election campaign hasn’t yet named an official House liaison, and it’s not going to. Instead, according to campaign aides and House Republican officials, the 2004 effort will employ a much larger group of lawmakers in prominent roles, with emphasis on sowing support in their home states.

“The 2004 campaign is very different from the 2000 campaign,” said Terry Holt, the Bush-Cheney ’04 press secretary.

First, Bush faces no significant primary opposition, so he has the de facto endorsement of the entire House GOP Conference and little use for endorsements anyway.

Second, Bush has spent four years building ties to the Hill. The White House has well-stocked liaison offices in both the House and Senate that are charged with regularly taking the pulses of Republican lawmakers.

Third, unlike during the 2000 primary season, the Republican National Committee can serve essentially as an arm of the re-election campaign while also functioning as a communications channel between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I think it’s an untapped resource in many respects,” said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who enjoys a close relationship with both the White House and the re-election effort. “Members can work closely with the campaign, not just on fundraising but on complementary political efforts.”

Lawmakers will be called on to serve as spokesmen for the Bush campaign in their states, and on the national level they can be expected to serve as media surrogates, ready with a quote to support White House policies.

Many Members have already made their presence felt on the fundraising front, either giving directly to the Bush campaign or, more significantly, tapping into their own donor bases to encourage contributions.

A handful of GOP lawmakers, including Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), have achieved “Ranger” status, meaning that they have raised at least $200,000 for the campaign. More Members have been named “Pioneers” for having crossed the $100,000 threshold.

But while the fundraising help will certainly be appreciated by the Bush campaign team, the real work by lawmakers will be done on the state level, particularly in battlegrounds like Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia.

In competitive states, the campaign will rely on Republican lawmakers such as freshman Rep. Candice Miller, the chairwoman of the Michigan Leadership Team, and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the chairwoman of the West Virginia Leadership Team, to serve as their eyes and ears on the ground.

“We are a critical state, obviously,” said Miller, explaining that, while fundraising is important, “there is no second for grassroots, particularly in a state like Michigan where the unions can have Election Day off.”

Like other state chairs, Miller has been handed a broad portfolio. She and the state steering committee are tasked with hiring an executive director and installing chairmen in every county. Miller said she speaks frequently with national campaign manager Ken Mehlman as well as Dave DenHerder, the central regional political director.

The emphasis in Michigan, as in other swing states, has been on getting personnel in place early so Bush-Cheney ’04 can begin sowing the grassroots.

“We’re months ahead of where we were in 2000, ’96, ’92, and ’88,” said Portman, the communications chairman for Ohio. “We’ve done more legwork.”

Such efforts are particularly crucial now, according to campaign aides, because so much attention is already being focused on the Democratic presidential contenders.

“I think it’s notable … that this is the earliest that probably any presidential campaign, certainly a Republican one, has placed a physical presence in [West Virginia],” Capito said.

Blunt, meanwhile, is still in regular contact with the White House in his position as Majority Whip. But he will likely spend much of the election season on the campaign trail helping GOP House candidates, while Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R) and Sens. Kit Bond (R) and Jim Talent (R) will aide the Bush campaign back in Missouri.

“Last time around part of the importance of his role was in that there was a primary and he was intended to shore up Congressional support,” said Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor, explaining that her boss now acts “not as a representative of the White House to the Congress but rather as a representative of House Republicans to the White House.”

Along with Blunt, NRCC head Reynolds and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) can be expected to coordinate closely with the Bush campaign in states where the presidential race won’t be the only crucial contest on the ballot.

“Our view of the relationship that we have with Congress is that we’re all in this together,” said Holt. “The president wants to avoid a lonely victory.”

Holt added that communications between the Bush team and the House Republican team will be helped by the fact that so many players on the former got their start with the latter.

“A lot of the senior leaders in this campaign are of, by and about the Hill,” observed Holt, who put in stints with former Reps. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and John Kasich (R-Ohio), Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.).

Several other Bush campaign aides got their start on the Hill. RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie learned the trade under Armey, while Mehlman toiled for Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas). Political Director Terry Nelson worked at the NRCC, as did campaign communications staffer Steve Schmidt.