White House staff members briefed President Reagan on a number of local issues when he traveled to Illinois for a regional news conference last month, but he could hardly have expected the first question tossed to him from “the home side,” as former sportscaster Reagan called the Chicago press corps.
After recalling that Reagan had stumped the state two years ago with Illinois Sen. Charles H. Percy, who was subsequently defeated, a reporter asked: “What value do you place on a presidential trip, particularly in an off year, with the exception of drawing crowds to these fund-raisers?”
Disarmed for a moment, Reagan initially replied that he did not know, then said he agreed that someone else’s coattails could not carry an unpopular candidate to victory.
“But there is another facet,” Reagan said, warming to the subject. “It may sound crass, but you can also help them raise the funds they need for campaigning. And, so far, I’ve been rather successful in that area.”
So he has. Reagan has raised more than $25 million for GOP candidates, more than $10 million of it in 13 trips and two at-home Washington dinners for senatorial candidates. In 10 states, including New York, he set records for the most cash raised in single political events.
On Sunday, he is expected to boost his total by an additional $1.5 million when he appears at a fund-raising reception in Los Angeles for GOP senatorial candidate Ed Zschau.
“The man walks into a room and it fills up with money,” said Dave Narsavage, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “In one day, he can bring us six months of fund raising.”
Gives Peppery Speech
Most of it has been easy pickings for the President, who usually flies in to the target city for a few hours, delivers a short, peppery speech assailing liberals and has his picture taken with scores of contributors. Stacks of pictures are routinely shipped to the White House for Reagan’s signature, at campaign expense.
As Reagan starts this fall on what White House political director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. calls “the last campaign on his own behalf,” the stakes are unusually high for a midterm election--both for Reagan and the Republican Party.
At issue is which party will control the Senate for the rest of Reagan’s term and perhaps into the next century. With the Republicans maintaining a slender six-seat lead, it would take a net gain of only four seats for the Democrats to regain control.
If that happened, the “Reagan Revolution” could be brought to a quick end. As Reagan said at a Chicago fund-raising luncheon, he would inevitably be pitted against “obstructionist leadership” in both the House and Senate, a situation that “could dangerously stalemate the country.”
As Reagan fights to maintain GOP control of the Senate, the question being asked by both Republicans and Democrats is whether Reagan’s formidable fund-raising ability can be translated into Republican votes in November.
“There’s a silver lining to this black cloud,” said Martin D. Franks, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The guy’s a phenomenal fund-raiser, but that’s it.”
Local Issues Called Key
Franks believes that most elections will turn on local issues and that a Reagan appearance late in the campaign could actually be counterproductive by reminding voters of their opposition to many of his policies.
Reagan is the first to agree that his coattails are no insurance policy for aspiring GOP officeholders. But his support is, literally, money in the bank. In 1982, Republican victories in four close Senate races were attributed to a GOP advantage in cash and high technology made possible by cash.
“While political popularity is not directly transferable, for someone to say it is of no political benefit is whistling while they walk past the graveyard,” said Haley Barbour, a White House political aide.
White House tactician Daniels, who is documenting Reagan’s Midas touch across the country, calls the President “a unique attraction.” A dinner for Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.), for example, brought in $1.7 million.
Reagan has pretty well stocked the larders of GOP senatorial candidates in the battleground states, although he has a few more important stops to make. He is expected to attend at least one more major event for Zschau, who is trying to topple Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), considered “the most vulnerable” Democratic senator by Daniels.
Fighting Uphill Battle
And, on Monday, Reagan will stop briefly in Denver on his way back to Washington to try to breath life into the campaign of Rep. Ken Kramer (R-Colo.), who is fighting an uphill battle for retiring Sen. Gary Hart’s seat. The stop is expected to raise $800,000 for Kramer, which would be a record-breaker in the state.
After that, Reagan will focus less on fund raising and more on what could loosely be called inspirational politics--wooing independent voters into the GOP fold and motivating Republican voters to go to the polls.
Reagan will be on the hustings one day every week during the early fall. When Congress goes into recess to give members time to campaign, Daniels said, Reagan will be on the road at least two days a week.
“This is far more effort than any President has made in an off year,” he said, noting that both Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and First Lady Nancy Reagan have agreed to the ambitious schedule.
In Santa Barbara, during the President’s August vacation, Regan presided at a long-range planning session at which postelection priorities were set. The possibility that Reagan might lose control of the Senate was considered in those discussions, Regan said.
“You always turn the coin over and look at the down side,” he explained.
When asked how loss of the Senate to the Democrats would affect specific issues, Regan replied with forced patience, as if the answer were all too obvious. “It’s the difference between being on the offensive and being on the defensive,” he said.
On every issue.
That’s why Reagan, for all his personal popularity, will be running so hard this fall.