By Chris Cillizza and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
More than a third of the top fundraisers who helped elect George W. Bush president remain on the sidelines in 2008, contributing to a gaping financial disparity between the GOP candidates and their Democratic counterparts.
Scores of Bush Pioneers and Rangers are not working for any Republican candidate, citing discontent with the war in Iraq, anger at the performance of Republicans in Congress and a general lack of enthusiasm. More than two dozen have actually made contributions to Democrats.
Matt Fong, a former California state treasurer, 1998 U.S. Senate candidate and two-time Bush Pioneer, said that after months of disappointment in the Republican Party, he had hoped to be recharged by the new crop of presidential candidates.
"I have yet to get interested in any of them," he said. "I'm just not happy with the direction of our party. I think we have a huge credibility problem, which I have not seen any of the candidates show the ability to rise above."
Democrats now have more than twice as much money to spend in the upcoming primaries as Republicans do, according to Federal Election Commission reports released this week. Some leading Republicans said they fear that a lack of enthusiasm could translate to indifference from rank-and-file Republicans in next year's election.
"The Republican brand is not selling very well," said Christine Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey governor, Bush Cabinet member and 2004 Ranger. "There are a lot of frustrated people. They are not seeing anybody who has sent them over the top."
Alvin R. "Pete" Carpenter, a former chief executive of CSX Transportation and a Bush Pioneer in 2000, said it was a combination of the Iraq war and the free spending of Republicans when they controlled Congress that slowly drained his enthusiasm for the party. Carpenter, 65, said he has been a lifelong Republican and was a "Goldwater kid." But this year he sent a contribution to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
"I have opted out for all the well-documented reasons that disaffected Republicans use," Carpenter said. "I'm not sure which primary I'll vote in. At the moment I will say I'm keeping my powder dry. It's the first time I'm really a bit confused about what I should be doing, or where the country should be headed."
For months, Republicans have worried about the lack of energy displayed by their loyalists and donors, especially when compared with the enthusiasm of Democrats. Polls consistently show Democrats to be far more excited about their candidates than Republicans are with theirs.
That inequity in fervor is most apparent in the raw fundraising total for each side. Through Sept. 30, the Democratic field had taken in $223 million in contributions, compared with $150 million for Republicans.
In the first nine months of 2007, the Democratic front-runners, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Obama, combined to raise about $150 million for their bids. The best-funded Republicans, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, together raised about $90 million over the same period.
Scores of the roughly 630 men and women who made up Bush's famed corps of Pioneers and Rangers in 2000 and 2004 remain involved with campaigns. (Pioneers were those who raised at least $100,000, Rangers at least $200,000.) Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, is aiding Romney. Former ambassador to Luxembourg Peter Terpeluk Jr. is with Giuliani, Pilot Corp. founder James A. Haslam II has signed on with former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), and former commerce secretary Robert A. Mosbacher is backing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Some of the top Bush fundraisers have stepped aside from politics for other reasons. There are those who had personal friendships with the Bush family that do not extend to other candidates, those who have tired of repeatedly soliciting friends for checks. Some are in prison or are dead.
A sizable number still have a wait-and-see attitude, despite the fact that the field appears to be set after the late entry of Thompson and the decision by former House speaker Newt Gingrich to stay out.
"I've been courted by several of them, but I really haven't made a decision," said John Etchart, a businessman in Helena, Mont., who was a Pioneer in 2004.
"With the Bush campaign, I was connected to it, so it was natural for me. I had an affinity for Governor Bush," he said. "That's not the case now. There's a natural barrier to entry that I have not overcome. I'm watching it and I'm staying tuned in."
Etchart said he is not convinced that the party is in such dire condition that it cannot bounce back before November 2008.
"Obviously these aren't the rosiest times," he said. "But I do think the Republican nominee will stand a very good chance of winning, notwithstanding the present difficulty."
Many Republicans argue that if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, the party's financial woes will disappear.
"We have a handful of candidates that will be acceptable to the 'Hate Hillary' crowd," said Anne Dunsmore, a longtime Republican fundraiser based in California. "You don't see us trying to take her out."
But John Weaver, a former senior adviser for McCain's campaign, argued that the fundraising dynamic speaks to a broader problem for the GOP.
"There is currently a lack of energy, a lack of enthusiasm, a lack of optimism about the near-term future of the party," he said. "If it doesn't change quickly, it's a leading indicator of what kind of problem we are going to have next fall."
Database editor Sarah Cohen and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.