During a whirlwind five-hour trip to bolster an endangered GOP congressman’s reelection prospects, White House political guru Karl Rove last week delivered a fiery speech to 500 party activists, then shook every available hand and posed for snapshots like a rock star. He toured suburbs recently trashed by a snowstorm. He also found time to huddle with local strategists.
But the most significant element of Rove’s effort to help four-term Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds keep his job may have occurred behind closed doors, when the White House strategist met with a federal disaster relief official contemplating how to respond to the storm. Four days later, Reynolds announced that President Bush would authorize millions of dollars in federal disaster aid for the area.
The timing was perfect: Reynolds broke the news hours after testifying before the House Ethics Committee about his role in the Mark Foley sex scandal -- knocking reports on the scandal out of the spotlight.
Reynolds’ fate Nov. 7 could be a bellwether for Republicans in the Northeast -- in the midterm election as well as the long term. And his poll numbers crashed after revelations that he had known about suspicious e-mails the former Florida congressman had sent to male congressional pages. In the wake of the announcement about federal aid, a survey by a Buffalo television station showed Reynolds regaining a narrow lead over Democrat Jack Davis.
The White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will provide the funds, say Rove exerted no influence on the decision to grant relief or on the timing of the announcement.
“The stars were aligned. It was a coincidence,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
As the midterm campaign enters the homestretch, the GOP congressional juggernaut that has dominated national politics for more than a decade may be over. Polls show Democrats extending their leads in pivotal races across the country. But the man largely responsible for the Republicans’ glory days -- and arguably still the most powerful political operative in the United States -- is far from discouraged.
A three-part plan
Instead, Rove is giving a virtuoso performance designed to prevent the Democrats from taking control of the House and Senate or, if that is no longer possible, to hold down the size of the Democratic victory to make it easier for the GOP to come back in 2008. His plan is three-pronged: to reenergize any conservatives who may be flagging; to make sure the GOP’s carefully constructed campaign apparatus is functioning at peak efficiency; and to put the resources of the federal government to use for political gain.
In terms of the third prong, signs of the maestro at work are visible in Buffalo and beyond.
In Missouri, Sen. Jim Talent is struggling to retain a seat that is considered vital to maintaining the GOP’s Senate majority.
Talent, whose mother died of breast cancer, has made support for fighting the disease an element in his campaign. Recently, Rove’s deputies arranged for First Lady Laura Bush to appear with Talent to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Once a year, the National Park Service bathes the soaring Gateway Arch that dominates downtown St. Louis in pink light -- the signature color of the breast cancer awareness campaign. This year, the pink lighting coincided with Laura Bush’s visit. The White House says it encouraged the action.
Similarly, the Transportation Department, responding to White House prodding, dispatched the federal highway administrator to Columbus, Ohio, last week to announce grants for a transportation hub to facilitate moving freight among air, rail and highway carriers. The event was designed, an administration official said, to boost prospects for Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, the No. 4 Republican in the House, who is trailing her opponent.
And when environmentalists from the San Francisco Bay Area sharpened their attacks on Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Resources Committee, the White House political office arranged for President Bush to stop in his district to sign legislation protecting wetlands -- with Pombo standing by his side.
On Tuesday, Rove used the White House itself to fire up the base, setting up a tent on the lawn for Cabinet secretaries and other officials to deliver the GOP’s hard-edged message on the dangers of a Democratic triumph to 42 generally sympathetic radio talk show hosts who could pass the message on to millions of conservative listeners.
Rove gave interviews to 12 of the radio commentators.
Recruiting an army
This week, Rove and his staff will turn to their endgame.
They will oversee a mobilization of political employees from Cabinet agencies, Capitol Hill and lobbying firms -- many of them skilled campaign veterans -- to more than a dozen battleground states. Many will act as “marshals,” supervising the “72-hour plan” developed by Rove in 2001 with Ken Mehlman, the former White House political director who now heads the Republican National Committee.
The two set up a task force after the 2000 campaign to find ways of getting more Republican voters to the polls on election day. The idea came to Rove after he studied the 2000 election results and concluded that Democrats had outperformed pollsters’ expectations through face-to-face contact with voters.
Harnessing conservative activists and new computer technology to identify likely GOP supporters, Rove and his allies developed their own grass-roots machinery to get out the vote during the final days of the campaign.
In 2002, Rove’s system outperformed the Democrats’ in mobilizing voters and is credited with giving GOP candidates the narrow edge that secured victories for the party in 2002 and 2004.
For 2006, Rove and Mehlman hope a turnout advantage could help them eke out victories in tight House and Senate races that they believe will determine control of both chambers.
But the success of the get-out-the-vote effort depends on putting a reliable army of volunteers into the field, and some worry about the sour mood among Republicans this year. Rove and Mehlman have tried to ensure quality control by recruiting experienced operatives to supervise key state operations.
In the summer, they invited hundreds of political appointees from Cabinet agencies, along with other GOP activists and Hill staffers, to attend a pep rally in Washington. The event featured appeals to politically experienced federal appointees to volunteer for campaign work in battleground races in the final two weeks of the campaign.
In a twist that resembled an Amway sales meeting more than a political strategy session, they offered those who signed up on the spot a chance to win an iPod and other prizes.
As the political landscape shifted in September and October, Rove’s office suggested new destinations for some of these volunteers, pointing them toward races that had become more critical.
But to senior-level political appointees, such conversations with the White House would not be anything new: Nearly all have had regular contact with Rove and his political deputies to a degree previous generations of appointees did not.
For example, Interior Department employees describe regular visits from Rove’s staff during Bush’s first term. On one occasion, Rove visited a retreat for the 50 top Interior Department managers. The lights dimmed in an agency conference room as Rove went through a PowerPoint presentation showing battleground races in the 2002 midterm election, and occasionally made oblique but clearly understood references to Interior Department decisions that could affect these races.
By stopping short of explicitly calling on the Interior Department officials to take action, Rove stayed within the rules against exerting improper political influence.
This year, Rove’s deputy, Sara Taylor, has delivered similar presentations to nearly every Cabinet agency -- providing managers with a look at polls showing presidential approval ratings and the latest data on House and Senate races.
In addition to Taylor’s visits to Cabinet agencies, Mary Matalin, the Republican consultant and former advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, spoke to agencies this fall describing the stakes in November.
“These visits are a reminder of what’s important,” said one agency manager who attended one of the sessions. “They didn’t need to say anything explicitly. We already knew what to do.” The official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the sessions.
As the White House official considered closest to the president, Rove -- along with his staff -- not only influences government decisions and the travel schedules of GOP officeholders, but organizes leaders of private-sector groups who are investing heavily in the election.
For example, Rove and his staff maintain regular contact with corporate executives, business lobbyists and the leaders of business trade associations. On Wednesday, Rove had many of them on a telephone conference call with anti-tax activists, talking up the cause.
“Karl talked about why it’s important to keep going with a Republican Congress -- to end the ‘death tax’ and make the tax cuts permanent,” said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who was on the call.
Norquist, who has been on other conference calls as well, said Rove hammered on such campaign themes and then reeled off information -- such as volunteer numbers and polls -- that supported the case for GOP optimism.
But Rove never forgets the adage that all politics is local.
During his visit to Buffalo, Rove emphasized national themes but also described how closely he worked with Reynolds on local issues.
“During our regular meetings, Tom gave me an education in western New York,” Rove told the crowd.
Then the presidential advisor reeled off a list of the Buffalo-area medical, defense and educational establishments that had received federal support during the Bush presidency.