Candidates want Bush's cash, sans Bush
Republicans welcome the funds he can raise for their campaigns, but are wary of his low popularity.
WASHINGTON — As the 2006 congressional campaigns get into gear, there are two George W. Bushes traveling the country.
One, the fundraiser, is welcome anywhere, anytime. Since January 2005, the president has set a record pace in raising cash for Republican campaign committees and individual candidates - $88 million at 26 events.
The other, the campaigner, appears radioactive, at least to candidates in tough races. When President Bush delivered a speech on Iraq in Cleveland last week, Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine (R) was nowhere to be seen. Last Friday, Bush traveled to the Pittsburgh area to raise money for Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania - the No. 3 Republican in the Senate and another incumbent struggling to win reelection - but the two did not appear together in public.
Vice President Cheney, whose job approval ratings are even lower than Bush's, is in the same boat: He's a money magnet at Republican fundraisers, but if it's for a candidate in a tight race, forget about the photo op. Democrats snickered last week when Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. of New Jersey got stuck in traffic - intentionally taking a congested route at rush hour, they surmise - and missed being on stage with the vice president, who helped him raise $400,000. So far this cycle, Mr. Cheney has appeared at 48 events and raised $16 million.
"Are you going to see Republicans in difficult races having [Bush] come for rallies? No," says Charles Cook, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter. "You will see him do rallies for people who are not in trouble, or whom he can't harm."
And what's the point of having Bush coming to rallies for Republicans who don't need help? "So you can say you're doing rallies," says Mr. Cook. "You don't want people to say, you can't take the man to a rally."
The stakes are high. For the first time in several election cycles, the Democrats have an outside shot at taking control of one or both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994. The margin of control in the House is only 15 seats, but only about two dozen of the races out of 435 are competitive. In the Senate, which is seen as even more difficult for Democrats to capture, the balance is 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 1 independent.
But memories of 1994 are still fresh. Then, a wave of discontent over the Democrats' decades of control, and a sense that the GOP was the party of ideas and reform, swept the country. Now Democrats are trying to create their own wave - and in a "wave" election, even some seemingly safe Republican seats could fall. So Bush may not even be welcome in some districts that seem likely to favor his party, analysts say.
Of course, Bush's polling numbers could improve between now and the fall, when the voting public really starts engaging in the midterm races. After some bad turns that have hurt Bush among Republicans - including most recently the Dubai ports flap - some analysts expect the president to recover his usual high support numbers within his own party.
The latest surveys show Bush at below 80 percent Republican support. Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst, assumes that will ease up and the president will go back above 80 percent.
"I don't know, maybe come November, he will be a voter turnout energizing tool," says Mr. Rothenberg. "But in swing districts or in weak Republican districts where the Republican is under attack - let's put it this way, if you're Rob Simmons in Connecticut 2 (second district), you have a decision to make. Do you want George Bush to come in to your campaign sometime in October in order to generate Republican turnout or not? I suspect you say no; that's too much of a risk of nationalizing the election."
Such a scenario, played out in districts across the country, could energize Democrats and "remind everyone that somehow November is about Bush," says Rothenberg.
For Bush, the hardest part of potentially being unwanted in the most crucial races may be that he does truly seem to enjoy politics and energizing voters. He served as an operative in his father's campaigns, and in his own campaigns, was an active participant in strategy sessions.
"I'm looking forward to getting out there," Bush said at a January press conference, when asked what his role would be in the fall midterms. "As you know, I like to get out and tell people what's on my mind, explain to people we're a party with ideas, we know how to lead."
History is not on the side of Republicans this fall. Typically, in the sixth year of a president's tenure, his party loses seats in the midterm elections, though the Democrats bucked that trend in 1998. Still, Republicans are heading into this year's campaign with a clear eye.
"It's too early to say what the political environment will be in October," says Charles Black, a longtime GOP adviser. "You always have to pick your spots. There are always some states and districts where it's better not to go late in the game. But there will be plenty of places [Bush] can go and do a lot of good."