WASHINGTON (AP) – After nearly a year of political speeches and record-shattering fund raising, President Bush took heart yesterday in the success of some candidates among the hordes of Republicans for whom he had aggressively campaigned.
Not long after polls started closing, Bush began dialing up winners, starting with his brother, Jeb, who won re-election as Florida governor in what the president called a “big victory,” said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Among the dozen others Bush called were Senate winners Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, John Sununu in New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. In pivotal House races, Indiana winner Chris Chocola and re-elected Kentucky Rep. Anne Northup also got White House calls.
Bush stumped for scads of Republicans, but none more so than his brother, for whom he raised $8 million and appeared often. “I want to thank our great president of the United States for coming down and lending a hand to his little brother,” Jeb Bush said in a speech the president watched on TV at the White House.
Bush began his day by voting at the firehouse in Crawford, Texas, appearing relaxed in a Western coat, jeans and cowboy boots. “I’m encouraging all people across this country to vote,” he said before returning to Washington.
There, Bush employed the power of the presidency one last time in search of even briefly securing full GOP control of Congress. He made a congratulatory phone call to Dean Barkley, the independent appointed to fill the late Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone’s seat during a short lame-duck congressional session that begins next week. Democrats now have a 50-49 majority in the Senate, excluding Barkley, while Republicans hold the House.
With that, Bush could do nothing more than wait. It was his 25th wedding anniversary, and the president and his wife hosted a small dinner at the White House with Republican political and congressional leaders and their wives. Afterward, the president tracked election returns on television.
Vice President Dick Cheney voted by absentee ballot and spent yesterday pheasant hunting in South Dakota.
Gaining enough seats to swing Senate control to the GOP would breathe new life into Bush’s legislative agenda. Top wish-list items blocked in the Senate include filling federal benches with Bush judicial nominees, partial privatization of Social Security, more tax cuts, a new homeland security department, a wide-ranging energy plan, tort reform in medical malpractice lawsuits and a Medicare overhaul.
Progress under Republican Senate leadership also could hand Bush successes for a 2004 re-election race. Likewise, lack of progress under continued Democratic leadership could give him a handy 2004 target.
Finally, Bush was propelled by an overwhelming desire to win, to cement his political legitimacy after the disputed 2000 election and to out-perform his predecessor, former President Clinton.
A midterm history bender – gaining congressional seats for the party holding the White House – was much on the minds of Bush political aides. Clinton did it in 1998, but saw the first midterm election of his presidency, in 1994, turn into a disaster. Never have Republicans gained strength in the House in a midterm election while holding the White House.
In the five final, feverish days, Bush campaigned nonstop, from frigid, snow-dusted South Dakota to Appalachia’s fall mountain scenery; from balmy, palm tree-lined Florida to dreary Central Illinois.
By the time he shut down the effort Monday night with an energetic windup rally in rain-soaked Dallas, Bush had delivered his get-out-the-vote speech, harshly critical of the Democratic-run Senate, on behalf of GOP candidates in 23 states – in six of them twice – since September. He dove into governor’s races in key presidential-battleground states and even gave considerable attention to less-prestigious House races.
It was his unprecedented campaign cash-collecting that formed the crucial foundation of the Bush midterm machine. After an opening fund-raiser Jan. 9 for his brother, Bush raised $141 million in 67 fund-raisers, obliterating Clinton’s total. Cheney added another $40 million to GOP coffers.