Even as he wages his own struggle for re-election, President Bush is making plans to raise money and campaign aggressively for House and Senate candidates this fall, a senior White House official said this week.
The president’s efforts will not match the magnitude of his campaign push in the 2002 midterm elections, a gambit that led to historic gains for Republicans on Capitol Hill and success in reclaiming the Senate. But strategists are eyeing what a senior White House official called a “historically significant” effort for a president facing his own re-election.
“The president definitely plans on being out there for candidates through the end of the election,” the senior official said. “He has been and will continue to be.”
White House officials gave no details about where Bush will be going, or when. But a senior official suggested the itinerary would not necessarily be tied to areas that are critical to the president’s own re-election effort.
Of particular interest to the White House is the South Dakota Senate race, where former Rep. John Thune (R) is attempting to unseat Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D). Bush won the state by more than 20 points in 2000, and Kerry is not expected to contest Bush there in November.
“That race is incredibly important to us,” the senior White House official said. “We want to make sure, first, that John Thune is running the race he needs to run to be successful. And we talk with him. And we’re going to make sure that we help when he needs our help.”
Any support Bush provides to Congressional candidates in the coming months would be atypical of recent presidents. To the chagrin of Congressional incumbents and strategists, sitting presidents often loathe diverting attention from their own bids for re-election, and their campaigns often strip away resources that might otherwise be available to Congressional campaigns.
At the same time, several key seats targeted by the Democrats — at least in the House — are in states that are not expected to be on the Bush-Cheney campaign’s radar. These include a handful of Senate seats, as well as districts represented by Reps. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.) and Anne Northup (R-Ky.).
“President Bush benefits our Republican candidates just by being at the top of the ticket,” said Dan Allen, a spokesman for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Many of the races that will decide the makeup of the Senate are in states where President Bush is very popular.”
States that are expected to have close Senate contests — but where Bush is considered a lock — include Alaska, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota. Many GOP strategists toss in Louisiana and North Carolina as well, though the selection by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to be his vice presidential running mate has created a more complicated scenario. With North Carolina more in play on the presidential level than it would be otherwise, Bush may have to travel there, which could boost GOP Rep. Richard Burr, the party’s Senate nominee.
White House political director Matthew Schlapp sought to keep expectations modest on Capitol Hill.
“Since the president is on the ballot this cycle, his activities on behalf of candidates will not be as extensive as last cycle,” Schlapp said. “However, the president has made it clear that he wants to avoid a lonely victory, and so he has traveled and will continue to travel on behalf of candidates through election day.”
Still, it is not clear why the president would plan to take an active role in Congressional races when his own incumbency is threatened. The Kerry-Edwards campaign declined to comment. “Our main concern is managing the John Kerry campaign, and we’ll leave their campaign up to them,” said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign.
So far this cycle, the president has provided personal assistance to only two candidates. He headlined a fundraiser last year for Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), then followed up with an event in June for Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), who is running for Senate. The latter event raised $760,000.
Bush will headline a fundraising dinner next week for the NRCC and NRSC expected to rake in at least $21 million.
Vice President Cheney alone has headlined 35 events for GOP incumbents and candidates through the end of June. The White House has also made first lady Laura Bush widely available in recent months, and numerous other top administration officials and Cabinet members have pitched in as well.
Democrats note — and Republicans acknowledge — that Bush and Cheney are not universally welcome. The district of Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) “would probably not be the best place for the president to go,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti. “[Bush] got 36 percent of the vote the last time [in 2000]. He’s not going to win Connecticut.”
In Pennsylvania’s open 15th district, where Cheney recently stumped for GOP state Sen. Charlie Dent, “Cheney’s presence in a district energizes Democrats,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed said.