Gephardt Absent From Trail

Posted September 17, 2004 at 5:57pm

He hasn’t been doing it much this election season, but Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) will reprise a familiar role this week, using the vast connections he built during his 28 years in Washington to raise money for an aspiring candidate.

Gephardt will host a Thursday breakfast for Missouri state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) at the Monocle restaurant on Capitol Hill to benefit her campaign for Missouri governor. McCaskill upset Gov. Bob Holden, a Gephardt protégé, in the state’s Democratic primary in August. She faces Secretary of State Matt Blunt (R) in November.

Still, the McCaskill event is proving to be the exception rather than the rule for Gephardt this year. Unlike in past cycles, Gephardt — who is leaving the body he has served in since 1976 after a second failed presidential run earlier this year — has largely stayed on the sidelines in the fight for control of the House.

Gephardt has made just one appearance for a House candidate so far this cycle — Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind — and has donated just $1,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

He did, however, help the DCCC raise $2 million during a tribute dinner for him in March, and he has put in several hours of call time to big donors on behalf of the committee.

Gephardt allies insist that his lack of involvement in the fight for the House majority has more to do with a lack of requests for his time and money than with any lack of interest on his part.

“It is fair to say that as former leader he doesn’t get the number of requests that he did when he was Minority Leader,” Gephardt Press Secretary Loren Raszick said. “He is eager to be helpful whenever he can be, and whenever he is asked to do something, he wants to do it if his schedule permits.”

Gephardt does have two appearances on tap for Congressional candidates and will also attend a Sept. 27 DCCC fundraiser in New York City that will feature House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and singer Tony Bennett.

“We have not wanted to impose on his time,” DCCC Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) said of Gephardt. “He is a House Member but also a national figure.”

Other informed Democrats, however, suggest that Gephardt has not fulfilled all the requests made of him by House candidates.

One former Gephardt aide acknowledged that “all of the political stuff is not the priority it was. His priority now is his family.”

The source noted that Gephardt and his wife, Jane, took their first vacation alone in more than two decades and that he spent a number of days in California in the run-up to his youngest daughter’s wedding there in June.

Though Gephardt is largely absent from the House campaign trail, he remains an active advocate for the presidential effort of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D), said Kerry deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf, himself a longtime top Gephardt aide.

“He has done everything we have asked him to do,” Elmendorf said. “For the month of October, he is going to be one of our top five or six surrogates.”

Elmendorf said that Gephardt has focused his time on organizing and turning out voters in his base of St. Louis County at the behest of the Kerry campaign.

Missouri is considered a bellwether in the presidential race: The winning candidate in all but one presidential election in the past 100 years carried the Show Me State.

Recent polling has shown President Bush with a double-digit lead over Kerry in Missouri, and the Democrat’s campaign is not advertising in the state this month.

Gephardt also participates in a variety of conference calls with local reporters, especially in the Midwest, and appears on television on behalf of Kerry.

“To the extent his focus is on Kerry, it is because we have a big operation that asks him to do a lot of things,” Elmendorf added.

Gephardt may also have other motives in his active backing of the Democratic presidential ticket.

By remaining a major backer of Kerry, Gephardt is solidifying his already strong chances of a potential Cabinet post if the Democrat wins the White House.

Due to his long and strong ties to organized labor, the most obvious fit would be as Labor secretary, but Gephardt’s name has also been floated as a potential Health and Human Services secretary or even as Treasury secretary.

Gephardt has been vague about his future plans, saying that he wants to focus on his family.

At the Democratic National Convention in July, Gephardt told The Associated Press that “Jane’s been doing what I want to do for 38 years, so now we’re going to do what Jane wants to do.”

Regardless of what the future holds, Matsui predicted Gephardt will emerge as a more visible presence for House candidates in the final month before the election.

“We had intended to use him mainly in October,” said Matsui. “Dick told me right after he left the presidential campaign that whatever he could do to help us win the House he would be available for.”

At the end of last month, Gephardt attended Kind’s annual corn roast in La Crosse, Wis.

Kind, who has represented the 3rd district since 1996, is not expected to face a serious challenge this fall. The Republican nominee is state Sen. Dale Schultz, a farmer.

In the coming weeks, Gephardt is also scheduled to campaign for investment banker Steve Brozak in New Jersey’s 7th district. Rep. Mike Ferguson (R) won the seat in 2000, and while it is not in the top tier of Democratic targets, it is a race both national parties are watching.

Another Democrat who’s requested an appearance by Gephardt is attorney Ginny Schrader, who is running to succeed Rep. James Greenwood (R) in Pennsylvania’s 8th district.

Matsui said he hopes to take advantage of Gephardt’s relationship with organized labor by sending him to competitive Congressional districts where union support can be pivotal, including the open-seat race in New York’s 27th district and the challenge by Democrat Tom Gallagher to Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) in the Las Vegas-area 3rd district.