Frist, Allen Could Benefit in 2008
Fresh off their biggest electoral victory in a decade, Senate GOP leaders took their valedictory laps Wednesday as some insiders already began to consider the ramifications of the triumph on the 2008 presidential campaign.
The two biggest immediate winners for Republicans were Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), who jetted through the South to meet with winners of a handful of key races, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.), who gets credit for the striking four-seat pickup.
After a two-year battle that at times resembled guerrilla warfare on the Senate floor — featuring filibusters, cloture votes and endless charges of Democratic obstruction — Frist and Allen teamed up to break open the margins in the chamber and dramatically boost their own standing within the party.
Frist, in particular, is receiving high praise for the victory and the effort he put into defeating Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — a risky move that paid off when John Thune (R) delivered the votes to oust Daschle.
“That was a bold gesture in South Dakota,” one GOP strategist said of Frist’s political travels to Daschle’s home state and actively taking part in Thune’s fundraising.
“You’ve just gone plus-four and you’re Majority Leader — that’s awesome,” the strategist said. “You go plus-four and you knocked off the Minority Leader — that’s priceless.”
One GOP chief of staff called the results a “pretty powerful moment” for Frist. “He truly established himself as a political power on the national scene,” the top aide said. “He clearly has emerged as a national political figure.”
The victory is particularly sweet for Frist because he faced second-guessing about his floor strategy on a range of issues throughout most of the summer. “Absolutely, he’s been vindicated,” said one senior GOP leadership aide.
Frist is retiring at the end of this term in 2006 and is a potential contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, as is his partner in the 2004 campaign, Allen.
Aides to both men declined to speculate about their political futures, focusing instead on the immediate benefits of a 55-45 margin for pushing a conservative agenda through the Senate, where a big chunk of President Bush’s initiatives have died through parliamentary tactics.
“He’s focused truly on the next two years,” said Bob Stevenson, Frist’s spokesman. “That’s truly where his focus is. What happens after that? As he has said, he would be happy to return to the practice of medicine.”
But Frist’s political standing with the GOP insider community of lobbyists, activists and fundraisers can only have grown after his successful NRSC stewardship in the 2002 cycle, when Republicans reclaimed the majority.
At the NRSC in 2002 and as GOP leader in 2004, Frist now has overseen the election of 16 new Republican Senators. He raised almost $4.3 million for his leadership PAC this cycle — more than anyone else in Congress — and dispensed almost $900,000 to candidates and committees for the 2004 cycle.
As Roll Call reported this week, Frist already has given the maximum $10,000 to 13 of the 14 Senate Republicans up for re-election in 2006. The only Senator up in 2006 not to receive a contribution from Frist’s PAC is Allen, a potential adversary for the 2008 nomination.
But at least one veteran Capitol Hill Republican cautioned that Tuesday night’s victories might not resonate three years from now, when a number of Republicans start hitting the campaign trail to seek their party’s presidential nomination.
“If you are talking about people who may run for president in 2008 and whether the Republicans gained or lost seats in the Senate back in 2004, I don’t think it is likely to be a hot issue on the campaign trail,” the Republican predicted.
Some GOP insiders also wondered whether Bush’s re-election will make it more difficult for a Republican with ties to Washington to win the nomination in 2008 — whether that’s Frist, Allen or Sens. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Rick Santorum (Pa.) or John McCain (Ariz.), all of whom are also mentioned as potential ’08 contenders.
The loss by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the presidential race was a bad omen if either party nominates a Senator in 2008. Four different sitting Senators have won their party’s nomination in the past 40 years, and each has lost the presidential general election.
And an influential GOP lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity argues that it was not the Republican leadership but rather Bush’s coattails that helped Senate Republicans pick up seats in this election.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think it is about any of them,” the Republican lobbyist said. “All of them are going to want to take credit for it, but it really was the Bush apparatus.”
Others disagreed, noting that only in Florida — where Bush hand-picked the candidate, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez — did the presidential race overlap with a highly competitive Senate race.
And in South Dakota, where Bush stumped often in 2002 for Thune’s unsuccessful bid to oust Sen. Tim Johnson (D), the president never once visited on behalf of Thune this year. Much of the credit for that win, outside of the Thune campaign itself, will be claimed by Frist and Allen.
One Republican operative suggested that Allen’s success at the NRSC provides him a platform that could give his 2006 re-election campaign a massive war chest that could scare off his biggest potential rival, Gov. Mark Warner (D). “It may well give potential adversaries pause,” the operative said.
And any Allen candidacy for the White House will inevitably stress his four years as governor as much or more than his time in the Senate. The GOP operative stressed that the biggest advantage Allen got from his NRSC tenure was to meet a new national network of donors who, in the short run, can help his 2006 campaign and then later, possibly, a White House bid.
“He certainly will be able to call on those folks,” the operative said.
A senior GOP aide suggested that the entire GOP leadership team could bask in the glow of Tuesday’s victories. Santorum, for instance, saw that the presidential and Senatorial maps did not have much overlay and created the 72-hour program in several states to help with get-out-the-vote efforts for half a dozen GOP Senate candidates.
“I honestly think that who benefits is the Republican leadership as a whole,” said the aide.