Less than one month before the 2004 presidential election, the Republican National Committee unveiled an ad charging that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was the “most liberal person to ever run for president.”
The RNC cited a vote analysis conducted by the liberal interest group Americans for Democratic Action to justify its conclusion. An independent examination of the claim by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center quickly dismissed the assertion. The ADA failed to consider presidential candidates who never served in Congress and examined only a handful of votes, Annenberg concluded.
For the RNC, the ad served its purpose and was just one of many examples of how Republicans tried to use Kerry’s Senate record to discredit him.
The Senate can be both a blessing and a curse for potential presidential candidates. It was the launching pad for Kerry’s 2004 White House run and already no less than nine of his Senate colleagues — both Democrats and Republicans — are eyeing the 2008 presidential race.
But history is not on their side.
No sitting Senator has been elected president since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Before him it was Warren G. Harding in 1920. No active Congressman has ever been elected president, save James A. Garfield in 1880 — who also was elevated to the Senate that same year by the Ohio Legislature.
Despite the lackluster record of promotion, many observers think that if the Congressional curse is to be broken, 2008 is the year to make history — mainly because the general election could be a Senator vs. Senator affair.
“It is very likely you’ll have two Senators running in 2008, which would break the losing streak,” said Greg Stevens, founder and president of Republican media firm Stevens Reed Curcio and Potholm.
For these lawmakers, the Senate offers a national platform to present their ideas, opens doors to deep-pocketed fundraisers as well as a network of veteran political consultants schooled in presidential campaigning.
Already, many of these Senators are benefiting from the trappings of the office. But service in the chamber also creates a paper trail built on votes and public statements. Inevitably, a Senator’s voting record becomes political fodder for opponents during a presidential campaign.
“Each vote is a vulnerability for a 30-second [attack] ad,” said former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who sought the Democratic nomination in 1992. “Additionally, miss too many votes and that can become an issue in the campaign,” too.
That’s why Scott Reed, who served as White House campaign manager for former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in 1996, gives Members of Congress who are thinking of running for president this simple advice: “Know your own record.”
Time Management a Challenge
Campaigning for president while serving in Congress presents the candidate with a unique set of logistical challenges.
Launching a campaign requires a Senator to put together “what is essentially a decent size startup business,” all the while working full time as an elected representative, said Tim Raftis, manager for Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) 1992 presidential campaign.
“You are talking about tens of millions of dollars that need to be raised and hiring hundreds of staff,” he said.
Upon entering the race, a Senator must then engage in the delicate balancing act of running for president without neglecting his Congressional responsibilities. Failure to do so can not only hurt a candidate’s presidential bid, but also potentially jeopardize re-election to the Senate should the White House campaign fall short.
Former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) said he thinks it is important for candidates to be honest with the home state voters about their presidential aspirations.
“I think the first step, and the one that concerned me the most, was to inform your constituents of what you are doing and why you are doing it because there is a certain sacrifice of your availability to them,” said Hart, who sought his party’s 1984 presidential nomination while serving in the chamber. “I think in your announcement, and visits back home, that you understand and that you hope they understand you are running because you believe in certain things.”
Seeking the presidential nomination also forces some Senators to make hard choices about their political future. Even though North Carolina’s election law would have allowed then-Sen. John Edwards (D) to run simultaneously for re-election and the White House in 2004, he eventually chose to retire from the Senate after one term.
While Edwards failed to win the Democratic presidential nomination, he was awarded the ultimate consolation prize when Kerry chose him as his vice presidential running mate.
Edwards, who is said to be considering another run for the White House in 2008, is now without a national soapbox and must compete with his former colleagues for the attention of the media.
Dole was forced to make a career choice after he was chosen to be his party’s presidential nominee in 1996. Dole, a member of the Senate from 1969 and Republican leader since 1985, retired from the Senate on June 11, 1996, to devote his full attention to his White House campaign. Dole was under increasing pressure to leave his Senate leadership post, soon after securing the nomination.
Senate Democrats skillfully used the chamber’s rules and their powers that spring to make Dole’s life difficult both in the Senate and on the campaign trail. For example, Democrats repeatedly tried to force Dole to schedule a vote on increasing the minimum wage, a legislative proposal opposed by many Republicans.
“The Democrats were very clear about throwing tacks in the road with different issues that bogged up the Senate works,” Reed said.
After winning the nomination, Reed said Dole understood that he would eventually have to step down from his position and did so at the right time.
Dole acknowledged that Members are not usually voters’ first choice for president but said legislative experience should be a positive.
“It ought to be a plus in most cases that you have experience,” Dole, now a rainmaker with the lobbying firm Alston & Bird, said. “It’s kind of like going to a brain surgeon — you hope the guy has done at least one or two surgeries before.”
And Reed argued that Dole’s leadership post was also an asset.
“He had a huge fundraising network, the ability to command the cameras and he was leading in the polls,” Reed said. “He was able to use the role as a frontrunner to cement relations with Republicans around the country and win the nomination.”
While each potential candidate will face different obstacles in mounting a presidential run in 2008, the Senators will at least share a common set of challenges rooted on Capitol Hill.
“You are on the phone all the time,” Hart said. “Even at 11 o’clock at night in New Hampshire, the [legislative assistant] is saying there is a big vote coming up … and you need to make scheduling decisions.
“You do that every day.You constantly have the tug of your Washington job. It is just routine for anybody running for president.”
In, But Not of, Washington
But even as you have to pay attention to your Washington job, you have to make sure voters don’t perceive you as being a creature of the Capitol.
Stevens, who has worked with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and George Allen (R-Va.) and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), all of whom are possible presidential contenders in 2008, advises Members not to become too “Washington,” and to have enough money to get out their message.
“Members of Congress think their images and messages get out further and farther than they do,” Stevens said. “The trouble with Washington is that people get swept into that world and surrounded by that world … and they don’t realize that average voters don’t pay attention to what is going on [in D.C.] every day, or even every week or possibly even every month.”
Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) had a huge advantage in 2000 because he was a governor and because he raised so much early money, Stevens added.
As a result, Bush was able to communicate the message he wanted voters to receive about him “and that’s what people in the Congress don’t really understand,” Stevens said. Having enough money to reach the voters “is a heck of a lot more important than being from the Congress.”
Steve Elmendorf, a senior adviser to the 2004 presidential campaign of then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) who then became Kerry’s deputy campaign manager, advised Members who want to become president to “run for governor.”
“They’re not in Washington, voters don’t like Washington; they’re executives and the presidency is an executive job; and third, they don’t vote,” he said.
Two Senators who are thinking about running for president in 2008 — Allen and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) — have previously served as governors, and are touting their statehouse experience as much as their time in Washington.
Seeking the presidency from Capitol Hill is not all negative, some consultants stressed. There is an upside and 2008 looks like it could be a good year for a Senator to become president, as one campaign expert noted a dearth of governors cut from presidential timber.
Senators can easily fundraise nationally, whereas governors initially are more limited, said Steve Murphy, a Democratic media consultant who managed Gephardt’s campaign.
“Senators can develop a really strong hard money fundraising base,” he said.
‘The Same Trough’
While Dole agreed that Congressional leaders or chairmen of key committees can easily raise money, 2008 could present a special challenge with so many Senators running.
“They’re all going to pretty much the same trough, and there’s going to be a lot of people feeding out of that trough and somebody’s going to get the leftovers,” he said.
But Reed said the 1990s notion that the states, and governorships, were the hotbeds of new ideas and presidents-in-training seems to be on the wane.
“Obviously it depends on the candidate and the climate, but there might be an opportunity for personality to trump” Senate records in 2008, Reed said. “The governorship was the incubator. There’s not a lot of depth now, and the pendulum could swing back.”