Monday, June 02, 2008

McCain: No Special Interest

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Republicans nationwide are expecting Arizona Sen. John McCain to save their party and bring hope to the entire ballot this fall. But he hardly lifted a finger in three recent special elections where his party lost seats.

In 2006, McCain’s presence on the campaign trail was a prized commodity as President Bush’s popularity plummeted. And his lieutenants say he is committed to boosting the entire Republican ticket in November.

“In addition to running for president, John McCain is focused on building the party in order to ensure that there is a reform agenda in the White House,” McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said. “He is raising money with the [Republican National Committee] through McCain Victory 2008 to help fund efforts on behalf of the entire Republican team. As schedules permit, Sen. McCain will also be campaigning with fellow candidates for office, as he did with Jim Oberweis.”

McCain made a brief appearance for Oberweis, the Republican businessman who lost the March special election in Illinois’ 14th district, but he was notably absent from subsequent special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi that also resulted in GOP losses. All three races took place while the Democratic presidential nomination was still up for grabs and the Arizona Senator had all but secured the GOP nomination. Now, McCain’s schedule will only get more crowded.

Anticipating a primary win, an Oberweis aide contacted the McCain campaign just before Oberweis secured the Republican nomination on Feb. 5 in the race to replace former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R). The McCain campaign offered two potential dates, Feb. 20 or March 6, and 90 minutes of the Senator’s time. The Illinois Republican chose the earlier date, in large part because March 6 was just two days before the special general election.

Campaigns often like at least three and a half weeks or more lead time in order to maximize a visit by a political superstar, but sometimes they don’t have the luxury of time. In this case, the Oberweis campaign chose to hold two events: a brief news conference at the airport and a private fundraiser.

“I’m proud to be here with Jim Oberweis to begin the Republican march back to the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives,” McCain said at the press availability at the Aurora airport.

Mainly local reporters covered the event because the McCain campaign insisted on landing the campaign jet, along with the majority of the traveling press corps, in Ohio and taking a smaller plane to Illinois.

The Republicans promptly made the mile and a half trip to the golf course at Rich Harvest Farms for a private fundraiser that brought in $250,000. McCain was supposed to stay until 7:30 p.m., but his aides must have caught wind that The New York Times was about to post its story online about an allegedly inappropriate relationship between the Senator and a lobbyist, and McCain abruptly left the event at 7:10. Had the story broken any earlier, Oberweis would have lost the visit entirely.

“Overall, they were very helpful,” Oberweis spokesman Bill Pascoe said. “Sen. McCain recognized early on that one of the roles played by the presidential nominee is endorser in chief. And he took to it with gusto.”

But McCain hasn’t embraced that role elsewhere quite yet.

On April 24, McCain visited Louisiana, and even appeared in the 6th district with Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) at the Baton Rouge Business Awards ceremony, but he did not do an event for Woody Jenkins, the GOP nominee in the special House election that was to take place nine days later. McCain took a few minutes to get his picture taken with Jenkins, for the Republican to use in the stretch run before the May 3 general election, but held no public events.

“I’m sure he would have made a pitch if we asked him to,” Jenkins said in an interview after his loss to now-Rep. Don Cazayoux (D). “We didn’t attempt to get him.”

But if McCain was really interested in rebuilding the party, then why wouldn’t he make keeping the Louisiana seat in Republican hands a priority?

Multiple GOP operatives note that Jenkins had so much baggage that McCain was unlikely to stick his neck out for him. But in the Mississippi special election, where Republican Greg Davis looked less like a political anvil, McCain still stayed on the sidelines.

The Senator’s inactivity is ironic because he relaunched his presidential campaign on March 31 in Meridian, Miss., and talked about generations of McCains in Carroll County, just south of the 1st district, where the special election was held. Davis wasn’t the nominee yet, but the Senator is clearly familiar with the terrain and with Davis, who despite losing the special election is also the GOP nominee in November.

“We got a lot of help from the leaders of this party [in the special], and we look forward to revisiting their support in the fall,” Davis campaign spokesman Ted Prill said. The Davis campaign requested an event with McCain before the May 13 special but was turned down because of the short time frame. The campaign’s request for a robocall on behalf of the candidate was also denied.

Following the loss in Mississippi, McCain said he had to re-energize the Republican base. But his inactivity in the race could be the balance between rebranding the party and the party rebranding him. McCain’s aides appear to understand that helping GOP candidates could define the Senator in more partisan terms and potentially damage his appeal to swing voters.

Looking ahead to the general election, Republican House candidates are more likely to be helped indirectly by McCain’s presidential run, if the Senator can appeal to independent voters, and get-out-the-vote efforts by the RNC.

“He has to run his own campaign,” according to one GOP operative, noting that the White House will always be the top prize.

“At the end of the day, it has to fit into his campaign and his map,” according to the source. For candidates outside the presidential battleground map, help will be hard to come by. Depending on how the presidential campaign develops, roughly half of the approximately 60 competitive House races are in battleground states.

Candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Minnesota and Nevada could benefit the most from McCain’s campaign. He could also indirectly help candidates in his home state of Arizona.

But vulnerable incumbents such as Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) as well as GOP candidates in open-seat races in Illinois and New York probably won’t see McCain any closer than their television set throughout the fall, because they sit in Democratic states. And Republicans in red states such as Kansas, Kentucky and Alabama shouldn’t expect McCain to show up there either, even though competitive House races are on tap.

“We strongly encourage Republican candidates to embrace and run with John McCain,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said. “The stronger he is at the top of the ballot, the better off Republicans running at the Congressional level will be.”

Republican candidates are hoping McCain embraces them as well.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 27, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.