Political Impact Debated

Posted June 7, 2004 at 7:03pm

As Congressional candidates and party campaign committees scrambled Monday to cancel fundraisers and pull television ads following the death of former President Ronald Reagan, strategists were divided — largely along political lines — as to whether his death would have any lasting impact on the 2004 elections.

Several Republicans argued that the former president’s passing could help President Bush appeal to so-called “Reagan Democrats” — working-class voters that Reagan wooed by force of his personality who may be leaning toward Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in this year’s presidential contest.

And given that Congressional Republicans have — in large measure — hitched their fortunes to those of Bush, any boost for the president would likely trickle downballot as well.

Greg Stevens, a longtime Republican media consultant, said that Reagan’s death “could potentially benefit Bush by reminding people of the themes Reagan ran on his entire political career” that included the notion that America “is the leader of the world.”

Stevens cautioned, however, that it was “too damn early” to offer hard and fast political analysis of the impact of Reagan’s death.

Democrats — and some Republicans, privately — disagreed, noting that the timing of Reagan’s death almost ensured that it would not be a major issue in voters’ minds come November.

“If the election were next week it would be one thing,” said Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson. “Then you would go into the election talking about what a great person Reagan was. But it is a long time between now and November.”

In the short term, however, politics as usual will largely grind to a halt as Reagan’s body is set to lie in state at the Capitol from Wednesday night until Friday morning.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) canceled a fundraising event aimed at collecting Member dues for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tonight. The National Republican Congressional Committee did the same with a House leadership breakfast event slated for Wednesday and a Dallas fundraiser on Friday to benefit the committee.

On the Senate side, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee canceled a Thursday fundraiser honoring the five retiring members of their Caucus and a reception for the committee on Friday in Phoenix.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee suspended all of its fundraising for the week, but individual GOP Senate candidates are expected to follow through with pre-scheduled events.

That includes former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, who was in town Monday to receive the endorsement of NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) and appear at a fundraiser today for his Florida Senate primary campaign.

Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama and Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, two of Senate Democrats’ top recruits, were also scheduled to come to Washington to raise money this week. At press time, no decisions had been made about whether those plans will change.

On the campaign trail, decisions on proper conduct were more mixed.

Bush left up his ad hitting Kerry for his pessimism on the stump, a message that dovetails nicely with the optimistic tone for which Reagan was known. Kerry also plans to stay on the air with two biographical ads. Both campaigns will go dark on Friday.

The NRSC was expected to continue running an ad hitting former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) on his ties to Kerry and fellow Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy (D). Knowles’ campaign announced it would pull its ads down on Thursday and Friday.

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) postponed his initial ad buy of the campaign and will make no public appearances until after Reagan’s funeral on Friday.

While the campaign postponements and ad stoppages are not expected to last beyond Friday, strategists debated Monday whether Reagan’s death will have even a subtle effect in the overall electoral message matrix. Most observers agreed that Bush, who has been buffeted by bad news related to the ongoing conflict in Iraq, would benefit from a week in which Reagan dominated the headlines.

“Everybody can use a week if not a month off from this campaign,” said Stevens, who called the back and forth between Bush and Kerry “unrelenting.”

A Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the most important time in judging the impact — if any — Reagan’s death might have would come in the next few days.

“It all depends on how the messages coming out of the Republican side are fashioned from this point forward,” said the GOP source.

“If there is a short-term impact it will pop up in polling data and people will make a move to capitalize on it,” the source added. “How long it lasts is anybody’s guess.”

Some Republicans cited the 2002 death of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and his memorial service, which took on a highly partisan tone, as an event that energized Republicans in Minnesota and around the country — delivering both that seat and the Senate majority to the GOP. Wellstone died less than two weeks before the election, however.

Democrats dismissed the potential impact, saying that not only does Reagan’s death come more than five months before the election but it also invites comparisons between the two Republican presidents that do not work to Bush’s advantage.

“This incredibly positive coverage of Reagan and his presidency does not translate to support for Bush,” said Democratic media consultant Frank Greer. “People do not perceive him as a great communicator and a strong leader in the model of Reagan.”

“Reagan was a great communicator and Bush can barely string together a sentence,” added Wolfson.

Stevens acknowledged that comparisons to Reagan could be tough for Bush but added Kerry would struggle with those parallels as well.

“It is hard on Bush and Kerry to be viewed through the same lens as Ronald Reagan,” he said. “The comparison is not necessarily a good thing for either of them.”