National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) predicted that the second-term agenda laid out by President Bush in his GOP convention acceptance speech will not figure significantly in House battlegrounds this cycle and instead advised GOP candidates to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of messages articulated at the convention.
“If [candidates] like something, by all means we’ll offer political advice on it,” Reynolds said last week in an interview. “But for the most part, that’s the president’s agenda.”
Bush’s Sept. 2 acceptance speech provided in the greatest detail to date the president’s domestic policy goals for a second term. Among other things, Bush pledged to overhaul the tax system and revived his pledge from the 2000 campaign to pursue full-scale reform of Social Security.
Reynolds said Congressional candidates might adapt elements of the president’s agenda to their own campaigns. But he indicated that others who spoke at the convention, such as GOP Govs. George Pataki of New York and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California — both self-styled moderates — might be more suitable role models for candidates in certain districts.
“I would tell you that in Texas, candidates for Congress are probably excited about every single word the president states, … because he’s still at about 65 to 68 percent” in the polls there, Reynolds said.
But in states such as Connecticut, where Bush polls poorly, Reynolds said, “I think it’s our incumbents’ personalities” that matter the most.
The buffet-style approach evoked by Reynolds bolstered remarks he made earlier this year, suggesting that GOP candidates were being encouraged to separate their campaigns from the president’s bid for re-election. At the time, Democrats seized on the comment as evidence that the incumbent was proving to be a liability for candidates on the campaign trail.
But soon after the original comment, Reynolds emphasized that he’d meant that candidates ought to run on messages tailored to their individual districts and not get tied up in the “atmospherics” of the presidential election, to use a word he mentioned last week.
Rep. Rob Simmons (Conn.), one of the more endangered Republican incumbents this cycle, said Democrats have tried to link him to the president’s agenda, particularly on issues such as Social Security. In 2000, Bush lost Connecticut’s 2nd district to Al Gore by 18 points.
“My job is to tell voters in my district how I’m different” from Bush, Simmons said. Simmons describes himself as a moderate and said the federal government shouldn’t “play around” with Social Security.
“To me, all politics is local, and [the president] obviously has a national agenda,” Simmons said. But he added that his district is also home to a number of military contractors who provide jobs for his constituents, and Bush’s message sometimes provides a lift with that constituency. “When the president talks about defense, it helps me,” he said.
Over time, Congressional campaign committees and candidates have come to accept that presidential races tend to crowd out competing political messages, particularly in the states where the national campaign is most hotly contested.
For that reason, it is preferable for House and Senate candidates to be backed up by a top-of-the-ticket message that is appealing to voters in their districts and states.
Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), another incumbent facing a tight re-election battle, said he got a boost from the “idealism” in Bush’s speech regarding America’s role in the world. His district includes the nation’s largest population of American Indians, who send more recruits per capita to the military than any other ethnic group.
“What came home and resonated was the support for the soldiers on the ground,” Renzi said. At town hall meetings the lawmaker assures constituents that Bush is committed to his idealistic vision, telling them, “Bush believes it, he will stay the course, because he feels it in his heart.”
In places where Bush is less popular, his commitment to Social Security reform has already revived charges from Democrats that GOP candidates would help the Republican president “privatize” the popular entitlement and thereby put it at risk.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Allyson Schwartz (D), who is seeking the seat of outgoing Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D), has made the issue — and Bush’s efforts on it — a centerpiece of her campaign against Republican ophthalmologist Melissa Brown.
“According to an e-mail from a leading Republican fundraiser, Melissa Brown supports the president’s goal of ‘Social Security reform.’ So Brown supports Social Security privatization, right?” said one press release from the Schwartz campaign last week. “Not so fast. Unfortunately, Brown has spent a great deal of time claiming she opposes Social Security privatization.”
Social Security “is something a lot of Republicans were running away from in 2002, and President Bush just put it right back at the center of the agenda,” said Greg Speed, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s not going to help Republicans. In fact, it’s going to be bad for them in some places.”
Republicans accuse the Democrats of using “fear tactics” to scare seniors into believing they might not get their Social Security check.
“It’s unconscionable to me that they could lie and put a cause of fear in our seniors,” Reynolds said. “They certainly tried it in 2002. It didn’t work, and hopefully they’ve learned their lesson.”
Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) suggested that GOP candidates, particularly those in swing districts, ought to seize control of the issue, since it will come up anyway. “You’ve got to hit it head-on,” he said.