As the 2002 midterm elections approached, Karl Rove developed a strategy for a full-court press. Conventional wisdom is that the party of incumbent presidents always loses seats in Congress in the midterm elections. That has held true for every midterm election in the last century, except for Democratic party wins in 1934 on the coattails of Roosevelt’s enormous popularity. Most policy issues don’t matter. The real question is how many seats the party will lose. On average, Republican strategist Mary Matalin estimated, the party loses 30 House seats and two in the Senate. But Rove believed that the strategic application of presidential presence and power could reverse the trajectory of history. Bush decided to put a good many of his chips on Rove’s poker table, and Air Force One hopped around the country to stump for Republican candidates.
In Arizona, Matt Salmon, Republican candidate for governor, ached for a photo of him and the president emerging triumphantly from the front door of the presidential airplane. He drove two and a half hours to Flagstaff so he could fly back to Phoenix with the president. “I would have crawled on broken glass” for the picture, Salmon said. And he got it. Candidates for House seats rode along.
Taking to the road for Republican candidates was a huge gamble. Presidents risk draining their own political capital if the candidates they campaign for stumble. Democrats often complained that Bill Clinton did not work nearly hard enough to help his party’s congressional candidates. But Clinton team knew he faced tough struggles ahead and needed to husband his power.
For Bush, the 2002 strategy paid off handsomely. His party not only broke the 1934 record, but Bush became the first Republican since Theodore Roosevelt to gain seats in both houses during a midterm election. In fact, the party’s success spilled over into state legislatures. Republicans gained 200 seats around the country; on average, the president’s party tends to lose 350 seats.
“Bush was critical,” said North Carolina Republican chairman Bill Cobey. “Without his help we couldn’t have raised the kind of money we had for getting out the vote.” The get-out-the-vote campaign helped push Elizabeth Dole to victory over Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for Bill Clinton. In state after state, Bush’s frenetic last-minute campaigning helped Republicans eke out close wins.
The strategy was one that Bush had mastered in Texas. As David Broder explained, Bush “started with a narrow win in his first race for governor and, step by step, converted it into a broader and more lasting victory for the Republican party.” It was a strategy he brought with him to the White House, as he built his razor-thin electoral college victory—and overcame his loss in the popular vote—to win passage of his income tax cut. Bush repeatedly surprised his political foes by pursuing policies they thought he was too weak to win, and then by winning victories that seemed beyond his reach.
The congressional wins were extremely narrow—just a small number of votes in a handful of races. Some Democrats were not convinced that the win was a mandate. “It was a 50-50 country before the election, and it’s still a 50-50 country,” argued the Democratic Leadership Council’s Al From. “I don’t think this is an overwhelming mandate.” But press secretary Ari Fleischer turned on the message machine full-blast. “It is a big victory,” he asserted to reporters. Even Tony Coehlo, chairman of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, agreed. “The White House took a huge gamble; they rolled the dice, and it worked,” he said. In fact, Coehlo concluded, “They won the 2000 election legitimately last night. He got his mandate, he got his victory and now he can govern for two years.”
Through a handful of victories by narrow margins, Team Bush gambled and won. “He moves boldly even when he doesn’t have any political capital,” explained longtime capital observer Thomas Mann, of Washington’s Brookings Institution. “He moves to create capital.” By investing that capital, Bush won a significant victory, and his communications team then worked hard to interpret that victory into a mandate. A senior White House official contended that Bush “thinks the conventional wisdom about how you respond to a big victory is wrong.” Instead of retreating to complacency, the official said, “it strengthens your hand” to act.