As part of his shift into general election campaign mode, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) this week embarked on a major outreach initiative with Capitol Hill, dispatching his top advisers to meet privately with Republican lawmakers and senior aides to pledge the Arizonan’s commitment to coordination and party unity heading into November.
The effort began in earnest Tuesday when top McCain adviser Charlie Black huddled with Republican Senators during the Members’ weekly GOP policy luncheon at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. And next Friday, at the invitation of House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), McCain campaign manager Rick Davis and his senior policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, will hold an invitation-only meeting at the Capitol Hill Club with top House Republican staff.
Republican lawmakers and sources said this week that while McCain’s campaign has informally coordinated with Hill Republicans for some time, there’s a renewed focus on formalizing those ties now that the general election is in view. The outreach comes as McCain’s organization puts together other aspects of his November strategy, and on top of his broader efforts to align his campaign with the Republican Party apparatus.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), McCain’s closest ally on the Hill, said Wednesday that McCain understands what can be gained by tapping into his relationships with House and Senate Republicans, both of whom recognize the “value added” to working together this cycle. Graham said Black’s visit underscored that sentiment, adding that for the first time in a long time “Republicans are very united.”
“I’ve never been more pleased with the team atmosphere,” Graham said. “The Conference is very supportive of John’s efforts — they wanted to hear about the campaign. There’s going to be a real effort by the Conference to help Sen. McCain.”
According to several Republicans, Black’s face time with Senators was less about strategy and more about McCain’s desire to unify Republicans and coalesce them around a similar mission — to win the White House and Congressional seats this fall. Black, who recently left K Street to work for McCain full time, told the lawmakers that McCain “is polling very well” against both Democratic hopefuls, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), and that the campaign has “fully pivoted into the general election race.”
Black also told Senators that his line is open at any time to field calls from Members, and that McCain stands ready to listen to their suggestions in the coming months.
“Charlie Black understands the game, and he has significant authority to reach out and communicate,” said a Senate Republican leadership aide familiar with the meeting. “As early as it is in the campaign, this is very good to see.”
Although another Republican Senate source called it a “predictable presentation,” Black drove home the point that “the McCain campaign has had a good run right now while the other side is still fighting each other.” This source added that Black made a “generous offer” to field calls from the Hill, and reiterated that all Republicans are on the same page when it comes to taking on the Democrats in 2008.
“Members in the Senate — even though they may have had issues with McCain in the past — are accepting his readiness to be the nominee,” this Republican said, adding that, “as things turn out, he may not be a bad nominee.”
Several Republicans said that if nothing else, McCain’s campaign seems to be trying to make evident that it doesn’t plan to leave Congressional Republicans in the dark in the next seven months. Those Republicans added that they realize McCain might be the only Republican presidential nominee who could help downballot Congressional candidates in swing states this cycle, just as McCain recognizes Republican Members could help him promote his candidacy in their individual states where they know the electorate and the politics intimately.
“This shouldn’t be a surprise because John understands the role Congress plays,” said one GOP Senator, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But probably more importantly, he’s seen the horror stories of Members in the House and Senate getting information about a presidential candidate going into their districts and learning about that through unofficial channels.
“We’re at the point now where he wants to open the lines of communication so we don’t mess up the easy things, so that it’s structured and tested.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), another McCain ally, said “everyone realizes that all our interests are best served by a coordinated effort,” and if McCain does well at the top of the ticket, other Republican candidates will, too. “There’s no point in us not being joined at the hip going into this campaign.”
Not surprisingly, McCain’s advisers are upping their Hill outreach just as national Democrats are trying to rally Senators and House Members to more aggressively target the GOP presidential hopeful. Democrats are privately worried that McCain has gotten a free pass in recent weeks since Obama and Clinton — still dueling it out for the nomination — are far more focused on each other than their presumed Republican rival.
That ongoing Democratic primary also has left some to wonder whether McCain has been too slow to get his general election campaign moving, especially since McCain secured the nomination last month. Yet in recent weeks, he has been putting together aspects of his November campaign — adding Black and hiring John Green, another K Street lobbyist and former aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), to serve as his official Congressional liaison. Green formerly took over his post on Tuesday.
Green, for his part, also has launched a series of Hill meetings recently, with particular focus on chiefs of staff to House and Senate lawmakers. Those meetings coincide with next Friday’s House-side briefing with Davis, and come in addition to what have become regular staff calls between House and Senate leadership offices and McCain’s operation.
“Obviously, we are talking to them,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for Boehner. “We are looking for ways we can coordinate, share resources and get our Republican message out.”
One source close to the McCain campaign said that while McCain isn’t always going to be 100 percent aligned with the GOP Congressional platform, he’s particularly intent on enhancing his “general outreach, taking advice and soliciting advice.” This source said the goal is to rally around a unified Republican message heading into November, saying emphatically that, “coordination will be tight.”
“This is about what can we do, how do we stay on the same page,” the McCain ally said. This is about the unification game. We are reaching out to every single Member on the Hill — asking them what do they need if we are coming to their district or the state, what can we do and how do we stay on the same page?”