The president has gone down ballot.
In the waning days of the 2002 midterm campaign, President Bush has been using the bully pulpit to promote a surprising number of Republican candidates for the House. In a grueling airport-to-airport routine similar to the end of a presidential campaign, Bush today and Thursday visited six competitive House districts -- four of them in states without important Senate races.
Today it was Reps. George W. Gekas in Pennsylvania and Anne M. Northup in Kentucky and newcomer Jeb Bradley in New Hampshire. Yesterday it was Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, Chris Chocola in Indiana and William Janklow in South Dakota. Over the weekend, he will pitch for Republicans in close House races in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and again in South Dakota. By Election Day, he will have visited most of the score of districts where House races are closely contested.
With cookie-cutter repetition, Bush hails the incumbent and aspiring lawmakers for their support of his positions on everything from the military to education. "Thanks to George's hard work, we're passing back $1.7 billion of federal money to Pennsylvania schools to help every child learn," Bush said at the Gekas rally in Harrisburg. "Thanks to Shelley Moore's hard work, the West Virginia schools will receive $330 million of federal money this year," he said at the Capito rally in Charleston. Here at the Northup rally in Louisville, Bush declared: "Thanks to Anne's hard work . . . the great state of Kentucky is going to receive $650 million of federal monies for schools this year."
The decision by the White House to emphasize House contests in addition to the usual Senate and gubernatorial races, though not historically unique, is an indication of the importance the GOP places on holding its narrow majority in the House. It also reflects a sense that Bush's attention-drawing presence in a state can have more of an impact in down-ballot races.
"You can be more of a help in a House race because it's harder for them to break through than for a statewide race," said Doug Sosnik, a Democratic adviser and former Clinton administration official. Senate candidates may not benefit as much "because they're able to put more ads on the air."
But, Sosnik said, Bush is making the same mistake Bill Clinton did in 1994 and Ronald Reagan did in 1986. "They've taken away the prestige of the presidency," he said. "he's made himself in these last three weeks the political hack in chief."
Republican ad man Alex Castellanos said House races fit well with Bush's intimate style. "He can make a personal connection, and the smaller the race the more connection there is," Castellanos said. "The more local the race the more important it is to demonstrate you care." Bush, he said, reinforces the message to voters in congressional races that "this is a Republican Party that connects with people and Republicans aren't just cold businessmen."
The congressional candidates have been effusively grateful for Bush's bet. "It's an honor to stand before you today and once again have the privilege of introducing you to a very special guest," gushed Capito on Thursday night as she served as Bush's warm-up act. The civic center in Charleston was decked with posters from candidates running for the state legislature and hoping to bask in the president's glow. Similarly, in Pennsylvania this morning, a beaming Gekas declared himself "a member of the team" led by Bush.
The concern for candidates for the House, where Republicans have a six-seat majority in the 435-member body, is administration-wide. Bush advisers Mary Matalin and Karen Hughes are traveling together this weekend to boost House candidates in Indiana, Alabama and Kentucky. Vice President Cheney today plugged House candidate Brose McVey in Indianapolis and has been campaigning for House and Senate candidates alike across the country. Even first lady Laura Bush has plunged into campaign mode; many of her stops in New Hampshire, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota this weekend will benefit House candidates in addition to Senate hopefuls.
Bush's task today was to assist Northup, a three-term Republican representing a Democratic district here in Kentucky. She is being challenged by Jack Conway, a former aide to Gov. Paul Patton (D). In Portsmouth, N.H., where Bush again touted Rep. John E. Sununu in his Senate race against Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), the president devoted time to promoting Bradley, a state representative battling for an open House seat against Martha Fuller Clark. Earlier, in Pennsylvania, Bush sought to lift Gekas, a veteran legislator who was forced to face Rep. Tim Holden (D) because of redistricting -- one of four incumbent vs. incumbent races across the country.
Bush's remarks at each stop are virtually the same, with little more than the candidate's name changing. "I got a suggestion for ya' for Congress -- George W. Gekas," Bush said in Pennsylvania. In West Virginia, he intoned: "I've got a strong suggestion . . . and that is to send Shelley Moore Capito back to the Congress." In Indiana: "I've got a suggestion . . . Chris Chocola is the right man for the job." In Louisville tonight: "I got a suggestion for you -- Anne Northup is the right choice."
In most cases, Bush's endorsements are vague. He declares that the candidate, by keeping the GOP in the House majority, will help him get the legislation he wants regarding tax cuts, health care or lawsuit reforms. Of Gekas, Bush said, "George and I believe in the value of hard work and personal responsibility." In the case of Capito, Bush noted that "one of Laura's favorite members of Congress is Shelley Moore Capito." And in Portsmouth today, Bush lauded Bradley as "a steady hand who represents the way the people of this state think."