Northeast Republicans Urge Bush Not to Ignore Region

Posted September 1, 2004 at 5:30pm

While most political observers have dismissed many Northeastern states as slam-dunk wins for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), Republicans in those states say they are not willing to concede that President Bush can’t be competitive in the region.

Republicans acknowledge that they’ve got some party-building and image-repair to do in the Northeast, but they say the successes of such Republicans as former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and current New York Gov. George Pataki stand as proof that Republicans can run strongly in the Northeast.

Sen. Olympia Snowe — herself a successful Republican in Maine — said the answer lies in putting more party resources into such “blue” states as Maine.

Before the 2002 midterm elections, Snowe recalled, she talked to White House adviser Karl Rove about beefing up the Republican grassroots base in Maine, “because I was concerned we didn’t have the grassroots organization in Maine that we should have. … That really, I think, hurt our ability to get Republicans out to the polls, and it hurt some of our candidates.”

Snowe said Rove listened and began to help strengthen the Republican Party in Maine. The result, she said, “is an unprecedented investment in resources in grassroots statewide organization.” Recent polling, Snowe said, shows Bush within a couple of percentage points of Kerry in the state.

Whitman said she is seeing polls this year showing Bush gaining ground in New Jersey — a state Bush lost by 16 percentage points in 2000.

“I’m not willing to concede New Jersey” to the Democrats, Whitman said this week at a forum for moderate Republicans.

Even though Bush may not win states like New York, where polls show him trailing Kerry by double-digit margins, the fact that this week’s Republican National Convention is in the state, combined with other visits by Bush and his surrogates, can help statewide and local Republican candidates further down the ticket, said Harry D’Agostino, chairman of the Colonie, N.Y., Republican Party.

If Bush doesn’t spend time in New York and other Northeastern states, said D’Agostino, “he writes off the candidates” running for the Senate against Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) and Republican House contenders in competitive New York districts.

And while Bush is more conservative than most Republicans in the Northeast, even Massachusetts delegates have high hopes that the president can reinvigorate their state party, which has a moderate Republican governor but no GOP Members of Congress.

Indeed, Fitchburg, Mass., Mayor Dan Mylott noted that the president’s father, George H. W. Bush, made a point of visiting Massachusetts in 1988 during his race against another Democratic presidential contender from Massachusetts, former Gov. Michael Dukakis. Dukakis still won his home state, but Mylott said going to his opponent’s turf helped Bush “solidify his race.”

Of the younger Bush, Mylott said a replay of that tactic this year would be wise. “I think he’s the kind of president who can pull it off,” he said.

Massachusetts delegate Sothy Chau agreed. Bush or his staff “should come to Massachusetts more often to promote the party,” Chau said. “From now on, we need to get more Republicans involved and get more Republicans in the House and Senate.”

But Northeastern Republicans acknowledge that Bush and Republicans in general have an image problem with many voters in their region.

“In New Jersey, a conservative Republican can’t win statewide. … Unfortunately, the president has been painted as a conservative,” said New Jersey state Sen. Robert Singer.

Singer regrets that the image of the GOP as uncaring about the poor and minorities has persisted despite many Republican efforts to reach out to minorities.

He added, however, that he understands it could take some time for Republicans to change voters’ perceptions.

“It’s taken 70 or 80 years for Democrats to establish themselves as the party of the working class and the poor, and it’s going to take a long period of time for people to realize that Republicans are not just the rich people,” Singer said.