The Sunday Fix

GOP Incumbents Are Serving a Familiar Dish

By Chris Cillizza And Ben Pershing
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Faced with one of the worst national political environments in modern political history, Republican incumbents are turning to a tried-and-true approach to win reelection: pork.

In recent ads for Sens. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.), the incumbents highlight their ability to work across party lines to deliver dollars for their respective states.

Call it the clout factor.

"Clout is certainly something people want out of their senators," said Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, adding that any GOP incumbent on the ballot this fall faces serious peril. "If you have an 'R' in front of your name, you had better run scared," Ensign said.

Dole's ad notes that she helped win $4 billion for agriculture programs and kept "every major North Carolina military base" from closing during the latest round of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) plan.

"Now that's clout . . . that's Elizabeth Dole," say two of the North Carolinians featured in the commercial.

McConnell's ad strikes a similar tone -- seeking to turn his role as Senate minority leader into a positive.

"Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has a vision for a new Kentucky," says the narrator, before noting that the Republican has delivered $280 million for the state's university system, $70 million to "fight crime" and $1 billion for parks and conservation. "The leader who can do more for Kentucky's future," the narrator says at the end of the commercial.

In Coleman's ad, he touts his ability to bring compromise. "The business of serving the people is about making a difference and about doing something, not just fighting about it but doing something about it," he says.

What's not in the ads is as important as what is. In none of the three commercials is President Bush's name mentioned. The limited use of the Republican brand is particularly striking in Kentucky and North Carolina, which Bush carried with 60 percent and 56 percent, respectively, during the 2004 election. Coleman's qualifying his party ties makes more sense, given that in 2004 Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won Minnesota by three percentage points.

It appears as though McConnell, Coleman and Dole have all reached the conclusion that the only message that can win for a Republican in the current environment is a purely transactional one: Reelect me, and I'll continue to bring home the bacon.

While pork-barrel spending is decried by many politicians in Washington -- including, loudly, by presumptive GOP nominee John McCain -- there's a reason it remains a staple. Many voters like to see their politicians providing "deliverables" back home.

In places such as Kentucky and North Carolina, highlighting the delivery of federal dollars could be even more effective, given the slowdowns in the two states' economies. Money coming back to a state means jobs, and, in an economic downturn, voters -- no matter how much they may dislike the president or stand in opposition to the war in Iraq -- can get behind someone who is helping them keep their jobs.

For Dole, Coleman and McConnell -- as well as Republican senators in tougher reelection fights, such as John E. Sununu (N.H.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.) -- the transactional approach may well be their best path to reelection.

Revolution's Bucks

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) officially suspended his presidential campaign Thursday night, having never won a GOP primary or caucus but nonetheless stirring up an impressive cadre of passionate supporters eager to follow his Libertarian-style lead. In the process, Paul proved himself to be a surprisingly strong fundraiser, bringing in $35 million through April 30, with $4.7 million left in the bank.

So while Paul's army waits for word of where the "revolution" will lead them next, Republicans around town might be more interested to know what he intends to do with all that cash.

"It is time now to take the energy this campaign has awakened and channel it into long-term efforts to take back our country," Paul wrote on his campaign site. "We have some exciting plans and projects to move the revolution forward that will come together in the next several months. Watch for them."

Paul doesn't plan to endorse McCain, and he still appears intent on holding an alternative convention in Minnesota while the official Republican National Convention is underway in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Perhaps more important, Paul plans to support Libertarian-leaning candidates within the GOP for various offices. Does that mean he will back primary challenges to sitting Republicans? That's not clear yet.

What is indisputable is that Paul has demonstrated the ability to mobilize large numbers of volunteers and supporters quickly, and that he can back up his preferred candidates with financial support. The vast majority of his contributors are small-dollar donors, the kind campaigns salivate over because they can be asked to contribute again and again.

Through March 31, Paul's House reelection committee gave $26,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee and contributed to a handful of GOP incumbents and candidates -- more than Paul has given in other recent election cycles. His fellow House GOPers might want to try to stay on his good side, lest they end up on the wrong end of the revolution in their next primary campaigns.


Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) continues to tap senior aides to former senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) for critical roles in the general-election race. Mindy Myers and Mitch Stewart are the most recent additions. Myers, who had been serving as chief of staff to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), has a long history with Daschle, having worked in his Senate office and served as political director of DASHPAC -- Dedicated Americans for Senate and House Political Action Committee. Stewart, too, goes way back with Daschle. He was a field organizer for Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) in his 2002 reelection victory over then-Rep. John Thune (R) and served as field director for Daschle's unsuccessful reelection bid in 2004 (a race lost to Thune). Stewart served as Obama's Iowa caucus director this year.

12 DAYS: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one of the most mentioned names in the Republican veepstakes, will speak at a dinner for the Connecticut Republican Party. The dinner has been a hotbed of national political talent, having hosted former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in recent years.

54 DAYS: The Summer Olympics begin in Beijing, China. The games are sure to dominate the news for the two weeks they will span, shunting all but the most urgent of political coverage.

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