washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Elections > 2004 Election

GOP Hopes Local Turmoil Won't Hurt Bush

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2004; Page A01

Fifth in a series of occasional articles

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Young, tough and brazenly ambitious, Brett Buerck and Kyle Sisk made quite a name for themselves behind the scenes at the state capitol. They made money, lots of it, and then -- to their regret -- they became famous.

The low standing of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, left, limits his ability to serve as a political surrogate for President Bush. Taft has seen his approval rating dip because of the state's lagging economy and a sales tax increase he approved. (Doug Mills -- AP)

About the Series

This occasional series on the presidential election in Ohio, which both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have identified as a critical swing state, examines the evolving strategies and techniques for motivating supporters and persuading uncommitted voters in an age of deep partisan divides.

_____More From Series_____
Taking the Campaign to the People, One Doorstep at a Time (The Washington Post, Apr 18, 2004)
In Ohio, Building a Political Echo (The Washington Post, May 12, 2004)
Jobs Loss May Affect Who Wins The Vote (The Washington Post, Jun 1, 2004)
Parties Square Off In a Database Duel (The Washington Post, Jul 20, 2004)
_____Battleground Ohio_____
Video: Malta, Ohio, residents cope with high unemployment in a struggle to maintain their small-town way of life. (First in a four-part series.)
Wanted: A Candidate to Defend Financial Future and Way of Life (washingtonpost.com, May 5, 2004)

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So what do a couple of formerly fast-lane Republican operatives such as Buerck and Sisk have to do with this year's presidential election?

President Bush can only hope the answer is not much.

Some Ohio Republicans worry that Buerck's and Sisk's influence on the 2004 election may be more consequential. Ordinarily, this state's GOP, which has held a virtual lock on power since 1990, would be a clear asset for the president. He could take advantage of the party's grass-roots organization, official surrogates and goodwill with the electorate. But a host of local controversies have scuffed the Republican brand name in Ohio. The most malodorous of these involves allegations of improper fundraising and self-dealing by the two consultants to Republican state House Speaker Larry Householder.

The accusations erupted onto Ohio front pages in the spring, and federal and state criminal investigations are underway. Ohioans have been treated to regular servings of leaked strategy memos and e-mails written by Buerck, Sisk and others in Householder's camp. With a swaggering tone, the documents suggest an approach to politics that borrows equally from H.R. Haldeman and Barney Fife.

They also have turned Buerck and Sisk into symbols for a season of furrowed brows and angry words within the Ohio GOP, which is in turmoil on numerous other fronts. All this is a burden that Bush, running slightly behind in polls in this critical swing state, surely would prefer not to carry.

"People have gotten caught up in having power for power's sake," said J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican secretary of state, who has clashed bitterly with Householder and is investigating the consultants' dealings. "When people don't feel passionate that Republicans can and will make a difference, that makes the president's job that much more difficult."

Polls show that only a small percentage of Ohio voters remain undecided about the presidential race. But among those few, the problems at the state level could become a factor at the national level if these voters conclude that Republicans are the party of entrenched power in both Washington and Columbus.

"Here in Ohio, you can point to one-party control at the state level and one-party control at the national level, so if you are a voter who is not happy and you want someone to point the finger at, there's just not that many Democrats to blame," said Herbert B. Asher, a political scientist who follows Ohio politics at Ohio State University.

Governor Taft's Troubles

The state's general mood of discontent has affected Bush's Ohio chairman, Gov. Bob Taft. He has seen his approval rating droop because of the state's lagging economy and a sales tax increase he signed to offset a budget shortfall. Introducing Bush at an event in Cincinnati a few months ago, Taft drew a murmuring of catcalls and boos from the conservative audience. Although Taft has remained active raising money for Republicans, his low standing has limited his ability to be a prominent public surrogate for Bush, the way popular governors often are.

The tax increase helped start a new wave of recriminations and feuding among longtime rival Republicans. Several are vying to succeed the term-limited Taft in the 2006 election. Blackwell, one of the contenders, has promoted a so-far stymied campaign to repeal the tax increase through a voter referendum.

In a roundabout way, this led to Buerck and Sisk. In March, Blackwell was one of four recipients of an anonymous memo -- the others were the Cleveland office of the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the local U.S. attorney -- smoking with complaints about Householder's operation. It alleged that Buerck, 31, and Sisk, 34, had received kickbacks from contracts with political firms hired by the House Republican caucus. Householder said he is confident no illegality took place on his political team; Buerck and Sisk, through their attorneys, denied doing anything illegal.

Apart from the matter of legal violations, there are questions of whether Householder and his two young operatives exceeded the bounds of propriety as they engaged in the fundraising and nest-feathering common to many state legislatures. Local papers have described heavy-handed plays for contributions and revealed that the operatives enjoyed lavish consulting contracts that came with severance payments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars if they were fired (as they have been, from some of their GOP contracts). One legislator was reportedly sacked from his committee chairmanship by Householder at Sisk's urging and was replaced by a colleague who promised to raise more money.

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