Many worried Republicans on the ballot in November have been pushing away from the White House, not wanting to be dragged under by President Bush’s sinking approval ratings and growing anxiety over Iraq.
That doesn’t mean they’re also fleeing his cash offerings, however.
Despite approval ratings in the mid-to-upper 30s, Bush remains the nation’s most successful fundraiser. Vice President Dick Cheney, whose poll numbers are even lower than Bush’s, is not far behind. Both have raised tens of millions of dollars for GOP congressional and gubernatorial candidates running in this year’s midterm elections.
Even as some Republicans are becoming increasingly defiant on a range of issues, they’re still lining up dutifully for the president’s campaign dollars.
“I would be shocked if a legitimate Republican candidate, not just a fringe candidate, who got word that the president was coming to do a fundraiser said, ‘no, don’t come to my district,”’ said GOP consultant Rich Galen.
That said, Republican candidates don’t want to be forced off message by such a visit and “have to spend the next two or three days talking about the president’s policies ... or what happened yesterday in Ramadi (Iraq),” Galen said.
It has resulted in some fancy GOP footwork as candidates in tight races step away from Bush and Cheney on divisive issues but dance toward them when the subject is money.
Bush has scheduled fundraisers Friday for Rep. Mike Sodrel of Indiana at The Murat Centre in Indianapolis and for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., at a private residence in the Pittsburgh area.
He’s doing another one at a Washington hotel on Monday for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., where $1,000 will get you in the door, and $10,000 in combined contributions from others will get you a “photo opportunity with the president,” according to an invitation.
Bush and Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, are not scheduled to appear together publicly on Friday. Santorum, trailing Democrat Bob Casey in polls, broke with Bush on a plan to have an Arab company based in Dubai run terminals at some U.S. ports and has raised concerns about the administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq.
When Bush went to Cleveland earlier in the week to make a major speech on Iraq, there was a noticeable absence of top Ohio Republicans, including Sen. Mike DeWine, who is locked in a tight re-election race.
Cheney went to Newark, N.J., earlier in the week to help raise $400,000 for New Jersey GOP Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. But Kean showed up 15 minutes after Cheney left. Kean said he got stuck in traffic, a claim critics questioned based on the route he took.
Michael Steele, the GOP Senate candidate in Maryland, skipped Bush’s speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in November, but joined the president later at a $500,000 fundraiser. Last month, GOP Senate candidate Mark Kennedy in Minnesota did not attend an appearance by Bush at a 3M Corp. plant outside Minneapolis, but joined him later at a fundraiser.
At a local GOP gathering in Nevada last weekend, Republican Sen. John Ensign tied himself to Ronald Reagan rather than Bush, saying spending under the Bush administration “has upset me.”
Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., who also attended the gathering, told reporters: “I believe the president has his agenda, his focus. I have mine. I will always run on mine.”
'The big issue now is the war'
Worries over the Iraq war are weighing down all Republicans and causing strains between Bush and his congressional allies. “The big issue is now the war,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
In a White House news conference earlier this week, Bush acknowledged the war was dominating the nation’s attention. “So there’s a certain unease as you head into an election year. I understand that,” he said.
A president is typically his party’s fundraiser-in-chief, and Bush has embraced the role like no other, besting even the reception-loving Bill Clinton in total dollars collected. Bush headlined events that raised more than $140 million for Republican Party committees and candidates in each of the 2002 and 2004 election cycles.
In 2005, Bush held 20 fundraising events, raising $75.5 million, while Cheney held 36 events that brought in $15 million. So far this year, Bush has held six events raising $12.5 million, and Cheney has held 11 events that raised $1.6 million, according to a GOP tabulation.
“The Republicans want to make withdrawals from the White House ATM. But at the same time, they don’t want to be photographed or be seen being anywhere near the White House at this time,” said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But Brian Nick, spokesman of the counterpart National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the large sums of money that Bush and Cheney are able to attract are “indicative of what both the president and the vice president have been willing to do since their election. ... It shows the dedication to keeping the majority.”
Popular with the base
Polls show Bush and Cheney remain enormously popular with the GOP base and conservatives. An AP-Ipsos poll earlier this month showed Bush holding a 74 percent approval rating among Republicans, compared with 37 percent overall.
“He enjoys very strong support there. His problem is with swing voters,” said Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker.
It is in states like New Jersey and Ohio, where swing voters have the most clout, that the races are the tightest, and where Democrats are working hard to tie Republican candidates to Bush administration policies.
Democrats, for instance, had some fun with Kean missing Cheney at the New Jersey fundraiser, pointing to news accounts that he had taken traffic-clogged Route 1 — at rush hour — rather than driving on the less-congested New Jersey Turnpike. “We made the photo that Tom Kean Jr. feared,” said a Democratic news release with a computer-generated picture of Kean and Cheney standing side by side.
For his part, Cheney seemed to take Kean’s absence in stride. “I do some of my best work when I’m without a candidate,” he quipped at the fundraiser.