The Blog

A Simple Plan

The White House was strategizing for the midterm elections long before November.

11:15 PM, Nov 20, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THERE WAS MORE to President Bush's wildly successful intervention in the 2002 midterm congressional election than meets the eye. The White House decision to play a large role was made many months ago (but post-September 11). It involved candidate selection and behind-the-scenes participation in reapportionment of House districts as well as more campaigning by Bush than ever before by a president in a midterm election. The result was that Republicans were perfectly positioned to take advantage when political conditions turned favorable to them in the months before election day.

The first decision was that Bush would be active on the campaign trail and not just in the traditional way of raising money and speaking at rallies. The president's early appearances had another goal in mind: make sure the right Republican candidates were running and strong opponents weren't. Bush was the draw at the most lucrative fundraiser in Alabama history last winter on behalf of GOP senator Jeff Sessions. The idea was to send a signal that Bush was ready to back Sessions fully and thus to scare away a competitive challenger. It worked as Sessions won re-election to a second term handily.

When Bush appeared for Republican senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, it was designed to encourage Domenici to run again. The state has tilted slightly Democratic in recent years, and a Democrat would have had a good chance of winning if the seat were open. As it turned out, Domenici ran and was re-elected by a whopping margin. In New Hampshire, the White House let it be known it favored Rep. John Sununu over Sen. Bob Smith in the Republican primary. Sununu was deemed more electable against popular Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. The White House was vindicated when Sununu defeated Smith and upset Shaheen.

In publicly backing a candidate, Bush had to be satisfied that three groups were on board. The candidate must have the backing of the state's congressional delegation, the Bush leadership in the state from the 2000 election, and the state's three members of the Republican National Committee. In Georgia, for example, Rep. Saxby Chambliss was approved by all three and was urged to run by the White House. Chambliss ousted Democratic senator Max Cleland.

In reapportionment based on the 2000 census, Karl Rove was the key White House player. Rove is a senior Bush adviser and the president's chief political handler. Rove urged Republicans to enter agreements with Democrats to protect incumbents in the midterm, and a number of deals were reached. Only three Republican House incumbents lost on November 5--Connie Morella in Maryland, Felix Grucci in New York, and George Gekas in Pennsylvania. Republicans increased their majority in the House by knocking off five Democratic House incumbents and capturing a surprisingly large share of open seats.

The toughest decision came a few months ago when Bush and his aides laid out plans for the fall campaign. At the time, Bush's job performance rating in the Gallup Poll was the highest ever for a president going in a midterm election, one percentage point better than President Kennedy's in 1962. Bush chose to take the risky route. His decision: go to close Senate races where a Republican victory was no better than 50-50, and campaign in House contests.

In the final days before the election, the president appeared at three events in Georgia for Chambliss, and he showed up twice for congressional candidate Steve Pearce of New Mexico, who won an open seat. Vice President Dick Cheney also campaigned for Pearce.

That Bush made a tremendous difference in the election is now universally acknowledged. In what is usually the toughest midterm for the party holding the presidency--the first midterm--Republicans won House and Senate seats, kept their majority among governors, and netted 295 seats in state legislatures. It was an historic performance. And wise, early planning--plus the president's willingness to risk his popularity--had a lot to do with it. Had Republicans done poorly, Bush's clout as president would have been diminished. Since they did well, his influence has grown.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.