President Bush pushed an unusually big political bet onto the table in yesterday's election -- and it paid off.
By recapturing the Senate and adding seats in the House, Republicans vindicated the president's decision to put his wartime popularity on the line for dozens of candidates in close races. All but three presidents in the past century lost congressional seats in their first off-year election -- but Bush risked his political capital anyway. He raised more than $140 million for Republican candidates, then traveled to 17 stops in 15 states during a final-week barnstorming tour to get out the vote in tight contests.
Bush took a campaign in which Democrats hoped to expose underlying weakness in a president whose narrow election was extremely controversial, and turned it into a demonstration of strength.
"Our candidates very directly associated themselves with the Bush brand of leadership -- conservative but compassionate," said Georgia Republican Party Chairman Ralph Reed. "We remolded our party . . . to reach out to women, Latinos and blacks. And in the end, every candidate that he embraced won."
Indeed, the Georgia results will be the subject of a lot of talk and study among strategists mapping the 2004 presidential campaign. In a state that Democrats have desperately needed to reach the White House, the Republican tide was overwhelming. Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss (R) turned what had looked like a tight race against Sen. Max Cleland (D) into a blowout, while George E. "Sonny" Perdue (R) shocked Gov. Roy Barnes (D) in one of the biggest upsets of the night. The GOP also knocked off the speaker of the Georgia state House.
As recently as late summer, Democrats were talking about Barnes as a presidential contender.
Presidents normally steer clear of endangered candidates in the last days of a race, because they don't want to be tarred with losses. So eyebrows went up in recent days when Bush scheduled a multi-state marathon of just such high-stakes appearances. He embraced Republican Senate hopefuls including incumbent Wayne Allard of Colorado, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, Rep. John Thune in South Dakota, Chambliss in Georgia and others. And while his candidates didn't win all the races he stepped into, they won enough to gain control of the Senate.
Bush also helped boost candidates like Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Virginia Brown-Waite of Florida to victory in close House races. Among the successful candidates for governor he aided: incumbent Mike Huckabee in Arkansas, Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, and Perdue.
Yesterday's vote produced some powerful symbolic outcomes, and these mostly underlined the Republican victory. Democratic threats to make the president's brother pay for his role in the bitter 2000 presidential recount fizzled weakly. Despite infusions of cash, and campaign appearances by former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore, Tampa lawyer Bill McBride (D) got nowhere against Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Instead, Jeb Bush outperformed his comfortable 1998 victory after running the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in Florida history.
A Republican, Rep. Bob Ehrlich, beat a Democrat named Kennedy for the governorship of heavily Democratic Maryland. Republican Mitt Romney was elected governor of Democratic Massachusetts. Former vice president Walter F. Mondale (D) was locked in a tight race with Coleman for the Minnesota Senate seat left open by the late Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D), on what was by any measure a good night for Minnesota Republicans.
Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma were symbolic exceptions -- Republican bastions that elected Democratic governors. Yet, despite budget shortfalls and service cuts in states from coast to coast, Republicans managed to hang on to more of their governorships than experts predicted they would.
Bragging rights are one thing. Legislation is another. In practical terms, Bush may have a hard time translating his gains into the power to get big things done. The Senate will continue to be very closely divided -- which, given Senate rules, means slow going. The story of Election 2002, ultimately, may be a continuing inability of either party to form a strong governing majority in a country almost perfectly divided between the two.
It's also true that the weak economy is a political anvil poised over the president's head. Democrats spent the election waiting for it to fall on him. The October collapse in the consumer confidence level would normally have sealed the president's fate. The fact that the anvil didn't crush the president doesn't mean that it won't.
Democrats, however, awaken this morning needing a strategy and a message for 2004 -- not to mention a candidate. It wasn't clear which, if any, of the known Democratic presidential hopefuls was helped by Tuesday's outcome.
For months, the party tried to make the economy into a catalyzing national issue that would lift their candidates across the board to victory in close races. The party tried mightily to play down the national security issues -- Iraq and others -- that voters placed near the top of their list of concerns.
Given that supposed rage over Election 2000 did not materialize, and the Democratic issues did not galvanize voters, the party faces a serious internal debate over how to challenge Bush during the next two years.
Election night had a lot in common with the campaign that led up to it. Both had their strange, sudden turns. The campaign that returned two retirees to active politics -- former senators Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Mondale -- flowed into a rather antique-feeling election night, after the Voter News Service pulled the plug on its exit polls.
The customary orgy of projection and prediction in Washington turned as sober as a meeting of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Without computer models and recirculated gossip, the political world was left to sit and wonder while votes were counted.
And the first surprise of the night may have been how many votes there were to count. Many experts had predicted a very low turnout -- even by the customary low standards of off-year elections. There was strong turnout, driven by a large number of high-profile Senate and gubernatorial elections. In South Dakota, where Sen. Tim Johnson (D) was fighting for his job against Thune, state officials estimated that turnout hit 75 percent of eligible voters, an off-year record.
As the evening shaped up, key races that appeared close began falling to the Republicans. Rep. John E. Sununu (R) beat Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in the New Hampshire Senate race. Former Cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole (R) easily defeated former White House chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles (D) to hold the seat of retiring Sen. Jesse Helms (R). The close gubernatorial races along the East Coast tipped to the Republicans. And the march was on.
Democrats set out to make Bush pay on Election Day, but he ended the day with more political capital -- not less.
But Bush will still be working in a deeply divided climate, where even small victories will cost him a lot.