George, Why Don't You Sit This One Out?

Bush's political machine is ruffling local GOP feathers

With few exceptions, conservatives are wild about President Bush, who sports a 97% approval rating among the rank and file. But his political team's heavy-handed tactics in the 2002 elections are beginning to raise hackles in the hinterland. In particular, activists on the Right are upset the White House is pushing conservatives aside and anointing moderates to headline the GOP ticket this fall, flouting the Republican principle of local control in the process.

In an attempt to recapture the Senate in November, Bush political strategist Karl Rove and his young lieutenants have focused on influencing the selection of GOP nominees in toss-up states. They are also swinging their weight around in House and gubernatorial contests--jawboning weak sisters, paying off the campaign debts of dropouts, and making their choices oh-so-obvious.

Case in point: When the President went to Georgia earlier this year to campaign for Senate hopeful Representative Saxby Chambliss over former legislator Bob Irvin, state Representative Fran Millar took offense. "It's the people of Georgia, not the White House, who should be deciding on the nominee," he and 18 other state legislators wrote to Rove and White House Director of Political Affairs Ken Mehlman.

In recent months, the not-so-invisible hand of Rove & Co. has not only beckoned candidates into races but also pushed others out of primary battles. Vice-President Dick Cheney called Minnesota House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty and urged him to abandon a Senate bid so that centrist Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul, could get an early start against ultraliberal Democratic Senator Paul D. Wellstone. Republican oligarchs also shoved conservative former Maryland GOP chair Ellen Sauerbrey out of a House race in suburban Baltimore in favor of pro-labor moderate Helen D. Bentley. And they persuaded former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot to abandon a Senate primary contest against Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina. A few weeks later, the Republican National Committee sent him $200,000 to retire campaign debt.

Perhaps the biggest White House coup thus far was getting Representative John R. Thune of South Dakota to forgo a gubernatorial run and challenge Democratic Senator Tim Johnson instead. The race has become a proxy for a potential Presidential face-off between Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004. What's more, in the primary to replace Thune, the Bushies prevailed upon popular Governor William Janklow to run against ex-Senator Larry Pressler, whom they consider a weaker choice. "We're looking for the best possible candidate," says Mehlman. "Not who wants to run, not who is next in line to run, but the best possible person."

Mehlman and RNC Deputy Chair Jack Oliver, both thirtysomething veterans of the Bush 2000 campaign, are on the forefront of this wheat-and-chaff operation. Yet even Mehlman's vaunted efficiency and Oliver's thick Rolodex were no match for quirky California. Despite the White House's seal of approval, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan lost the Mar. 5 gubernatorial primary to financier Bill Simon. And therein lies the danger of choosing candidates from afar: Unless Bush's picks win, there is likely to be lingering ill will among local GOP organizations.

Mindful of the high stakes, the White House is going full bore to get the anointed elected. Bush has crisscrossed the country to stump for hopefuls and simultaneously flog his policy proposals, a twofer that has raised Democratic eyebrows. "The White House bootstraps an alleged policy event onto these blatantly political trips so the taxpayer picks up the bill," grouses Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The chosen, however, are grateful for the attention and cash Bush's visits provide. The White House "is always trying to maximize opportunities for you to appear with the President and showcase you as a candidate," says Representative Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is trying to replace retiring Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

In its quest to regain the Senate, Rove & Co. is leaving nothing to chance. On the day the South Dakota Fraternal Order of Police opted to endorse Democrat Johnson over Thune, Mehlman called the organization four times to urge it to reconsider. And when Housing & Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez visited Minnesota, Mehlman made sure there were plenty of photo ops with Representative Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.). Kennedy won by just 155 votes in 2000 and faces a Democratic incumbent this year because of redistricting. "Mehlman doesn't focus his time on friends of the President who probably wouldn't need his support," says Kennedy. "He focuses on keeping the majority in the House and regaining the Senate."

While Mehlman, 35, closely monitors grassroots developments, Oliver, 33, fills candidates' campaign coffers. Oliver, who ran John D. Ashcroft's Presidential campaign before raising record amounts of cash for Bush, has used his national contacts to narrow the funding gap between Republican challengers and their incumbent Democratic foes. What's more, he helps smooth feathers ruffled by the GOP leaders' tough tactics. "He's young, but he has the kind of personality where he can pick up the phone and repair the damage when I've severed ties," says National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).

For now, Davis and his White House allies show no signs of tempering their aggressive strategy. "Local parties don't always nominate the strongest candidates," Davis insists.

Still, irking grassroots Republicans could come back to haunt the Administration. The Christian Right is already critical of Bush's tougher line on Israel. And it is the base that generally votes in midterm elections--not moderates and independents. If the faithful are so disenchanted with their standard-bearer that they stay away from the polls in the fall, that could cost the GOP seats in a tight election. In fact, Bush could come to wonder if it might not have been better to live with local control--whatever the outcome.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.