WASHINGTON — In 1992, the Clinton election team had a sign in its War Room that said, “It’s the ECONOMY, Stupid!” That was the theme of that election.
Well, the sign for Tuesday’s U.S. midterm elections would have to read, “It’s the PRESIDENT, Stupid!” It was President George W. Bush’s campaign, his message and his momentum that carried the day for the Republicans.
Bush took his campaign for electoral vindication to the people over these past months and won. His aggressive campaign efforts for his party’s candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives paid off with gains for his party that guarantee control of both Houses will be in Republican hands.
As the dust settles from America’s most expensive off-year election, the Republicans have won control of the Senate with at least 51 seats to 47 for the Democrats, one independent and one race still undecided. In the House, there are 228 confirmed Republican members, 203 Democrats, one independent and three seats still undecided.
This was a peculiar election. Neither party was able to develop an overall national theme or campaign platform. The issues in the races were largely local. Money was plentiful and much of it went into negative advertising. The big difference was Bush. He set the agenda. He decided what would be the issues of the debate. He developed the themes. He made the difference.
The president was the most active campaigner of any president in U.S. history. He did it all. Early on, he took a personal hand in the selection of candidates for key Senate and governor races. He used his influence to clear the nomination paths for several of his favorites, and then helped finance their efforts. In the past month, the president visited 19 states, made 90 campaign appearances and attended 75 fundraisers. In all, he and Vice President Dick Cheney were responsible for raising more then $210 million for the GOP and its candidates in this election cycle.
This made the difference. Despite what Democrats want to believe, the president is widely popular with a 61 percent favorable rating. In exit polling, 44 percent of the electorate said their vote was based on the president and in support of him. The Democrats were outspent — though they were generally well-funded to the tune of $200 million, according to their national chairman — by the amount the president and vice president brought into Republican coffers.
What was it the president did for the Republicans? He did not convince independents to vote Republican. He did what a party needs to do in a lackluster midterm election: He mobilized and energized the Republican base of voters and got them to vote. The Democrats failed to get core voters to the polls. They had no catalyzing personality, no dynamic issue and no captivating theme to get their loyalists involved in this campaign. Neither the Democratic National Committee nor its congressional leaders were able to make the magic happen, even though their mobilization of Election Day machinery was greater than ever. They just never got a message that resonated well enough with their voters to draw them to the polls in great numbers.
The president and the Republicans are now starting over, only with a little better edge and a little more momentum. They have the majority in both Houses of Congress. They will control the committees and they will control the agenda. They will have no excuses for not bringing important legislation forward.
But they do not have the votes in the Senate to roll over the minority and pass legislation without compromise. That magic number of 60 votes is still in effect. To get a vote on any question, 60 senators must agree to allow the vote. Thus, legislation must be crafted to accommodate minority views.
That is not the case in the House of Representatives. There the rules are different and provide that a simple majority can rule effectively, as the Republicans have proven these past two years. The results of Tuesday’s elections give the Republicans a little more comfort. The Republicans gained five seats as the Democrats lost five, adding to GOP control.
The president should have the most loyal congressional following of any in history. He is responsible for the majority leaders being where they are and they know it. He carried them on his broad shoulders and, with his personal political acumen, energy and drive, won this victory for them. They will respond accordingly. He is well liked by his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, and his relationships with them will be smooth and easy.
For the Democrats, it is the beginning of a long winter. The minority leader of the House of Representatives, Dick Gephardt, announced that he will not be a candidate for re-election to that post. He is expected to become a presidential candidate shortly after the first of the year. With close ties to organized labor, Gephardt served as his party’s chief legislative strategist in the House as well as its chief fundraiser, often struggling to hold a diverse caucus together on issues ranging from tax policy to international trade legislation.
The minority leader in the House will be decided within 10 days. The two contenders are Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco congresswoman who was elected to the assistant leader’s job last summer, and Martin Frost, the Dallas lawmaker who has served in a number of leadership roles over the years. Frost has staked out the middle ground in the race, suggesting that the party cannot afford to “move left as it would with Pelosi at the helm.”
Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle accepted some blame for the Democratic defeat, but he is not expected to leave. His consolation was the re-election, by just a few votes, of his colleague from South Dakota, Tim Johnson.
At the Democratic National Committee, Chairman Terry McAuliffe called in the press and expounded on his successes and those of the committee in its losing effort: More money, more manpower sent to the field, more coordination among campaigns, more of everything except results, it seems. It made for more blur in front of more Democrats’ eyes as they wondered why McAuliffe doesn’t get it. Many had hoped that the committee could be part of the solution. Oh well, too bad.
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