The White House invested 11 months and huge amounts of political capital in Richard Riordan's bid to be governor of California. President Bush personally wooed the former Los Angeles Mayor, who supports abortion rights and gun control. And Vice-President Dick Cheney followed with a $300,000 fund-raiser. Why back a candidate to Bush's left? White House political guru Karl Rove reasoned that Riordan, who received strong Democratic support in his two mayoral bids, could win vital crossover votes in November against Democratic incumbent Gray Davis.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Riordan's coronation as the Republican standard-bearer: On Mar. 5, GOP primary voters instead nominated conservative Bill Simon, son of former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon. "The world is not a chessboard where the White House can move pieces," says Mike Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Riordan's defeat highlights the risks of the Administration's unprecedented top-down campaign to recruit and raise money for Republicans who appeal to swing voters in key states. With control of Congress and 36 governorships up for grabs, the goal is to clear a path in Congress next year for the Bush agenda and ensure that GOP governors--and their get-out-the-vote machines--are in power when the Presidential election rolls around in 2004. Rove and his lieutenants--White House Political Director Kenneth B. Mehlman and Republican National Committee Vice-Chairman Jack Oliver--are being coldly pragmatic. In some states, they believe, the odds favor centrists over true-blue conservatives. "One race could make the difference between whether we're going to have a Congress that works with Bush or one that results in gridlock," says Representative Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), who wants to unseat liberal Democratic Senator Tom Harkin. The White House is helping Ganske take on a more doctrinaire Republican in the primary.
Conservatives say Bush is too willing to swap principle for political expediency. And they worry that his compassionate conservative clones may lose in November if the party's base stays home. John J. Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, agrees there's risk. "But ultimately it's a smart strategy," he says. "As Reagan learned in the second term, you can't ignore the makeup of Congress."
Despite Riordan's loss, Bush is sticking to his game plan. In the race to succeed right-wing icon Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Bush and Rove cleared the field so that moderate conservative Elizabeth H. Dole could avoid a bloody primary against a hard-liner. In Minnesota, Cheney personally urged state House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty to abandon his Senate bid so that former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman could get an early start against Democratic liberal Paul Wellstone.
The next test of the Bush plan will be late this spring in Ohio, where the White House has anointed former Dayton Mayor Mike Turner in a special election to replace Democratic Representative Tony Hall, who has accepted a U.N. job. Turner is expected to face a three-way contest against more conservative foes.
Sure, Bush's strategy doesn't sit well with the Right. "There were certainly some hurt feelings," acknowledges Minnesota House Speaker Steve Sviggum, a Pawlenty ally. But with a 97% approval rating among conservatives, Bush is betting he can retain their loyalty while putting centrists on the ballot who can get elected--and owe him big-time. Democrats are crowing as Bush Administration officials can't seem to shake the Enron debacle. On Mar. 6, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) released a series of letters in which he raises questions about whether Army Secretary Thomas E. White properly disclosed his Enron holdings. The letters show that White, a former Enron executive, elected to take a monthly annuity that was invested in Enron stock without informing the Office of Government Ethics.
"This is another disturbing example of the Bush Administration's stonewalling on its relationship with Enron," says Jennifer Palmieri, spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee. "This sequence of correspondence raises serious questions about Secretary White's conduct. At a minimum, this warrants a further investigation by the Senate to determine if there was inappropriate or perhaps illegal activity by Secretary White."
In a Feb. 7 letter, White told Amy L. Comstock, director of the Office of Government Ethics, that he thought his election of an annuity complied with his ethics agreement. He added that the payment "has been discontinued" since Enron's bankruptcy.
That didn't satisfy Levin. In a Mar. 1 letter co-signed by ranking committee member John W. Warner (R-Va.), Levin stated that White didn't disclose his Enron holdings when he should have last fall. White has written to Levin promising to comply with ethics rules "if and when" Enron r?sum?s making its monthly annuity payment.