As Democrats continue to examine the wreckage of November's midterm elections and calculate just how badly Republicans outspent them (by a ratio of 5-to-3), they might want to take a closer look at the role of Gov. George W. Bush. Yes, that's Gov. Bush, not President Bush. Over the past year, not only did the president barnstorm the country campaigning for critical Republican candidates, he also lent the support of his Texas gubernatorial campaign committee, which has been running strong since he was elected governor of Texas in 1998.
The Governor Bush Committee gave the Republican National Committee (RNC) $1.7 million between December 31, 2001, and July 2002, according to campaign-finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. In late 2001, Gov. Bush's committee also tossed a quarter-million bucks to the Republican Governor's Association, and spread its largesse to many candidates running for statewide office in Texas as well. The Associated Republicans of Texas got $500,000; Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and Gov. Rick Perry got $10,000 each. A handful of judges got $5,000 apiece from the governor.
How is it that a sitting president could still be operating a campaign committee for a state office he hasn't run for in four years? Easy, really. For his last race in Texas, the incumbent Bush raised an eye-popping $25 million, often in lump sums of $25,000 or more. (That money apparently came from all the usual suspects, including "people who mass marketed quack cures for baldness, corrupted college athletes, laundered money, peddled government influence, misled investors, financed David Duke, dodged taxes, dumped toxic pollution and own companies that sold shock batons to dictators," according to a study by the Texans for Public Justice, an organization that tracks the influence of money in politics.) But the future president ran against a weak challenger, and the easy victory left him with money to spare -- about $3 million, according to campaign treasurer Allan "Bud" Shivers. Usually all that's left after political races is debt; any surplus is generally rolled into the re-election war chest. This time, though, the candidate didn't have the rollover option.
Because he was running for federal office, both state and federal law barred Bush's presidential campaign from using the money he had raised under Texas' threadbare campaign-finance laws. (Texas has no limits on campaign contributions, except for those to judges.)
When asked why Bush didn't just give his surplus to charity in a gesture of compassionate conservatism, Shivers gives the quintessential 21st-century Republican response: There weren't any tax benefits to the committee or its donors, who Shivers says intended their money to be used for political purposes anyway. Still, Bush's committee could have given its surplus funds to the RNC four years ago, after the governor's race was wrapped up. But with its full complement of computer equipment, monthly plant-watering service, bottled-water deliveries, dedicated staffers and cable TV hookups, the committee was far too useful for someone starting up a presidential bid to just shut down.
Paul Sanford, director of FEC (Federal Election Commission) Watch at the Center for Responsive Politics, says that as a general rule, it would be illegal for a gubernatorial campaign to buy supplies or pay for services for a presidential campaign. "More than likely, they will argue that the items were not used by the presidential campaign," he says.
Indeed, Shivers says the committee only used its money for "state party activities," like get-out-the-vote drives and other political work not specific to one candidate, and it did not take any donations after 1998. But the difference between a state party activity and a federal campaign is pretty murky. For instance, according to its filings with the Texas Ethics Commission, the Governor Bush Committee spent $70,000 chartering private planes during the first nine months of 2000; $22,000 of that came at the end of August, about the time of the Republican convention in Philadelphia. Shivers admits that while the committee didn't raise money for itself, it did raise a "lot of money" for Bush's presidential campaign before it was fully up and running.
The governor's committee also had quite a bit of contact with key people in the presidential campaign. For instance, it reimbursed Clay Johnson for $3,500 in committee-related travel, meals and staff meetings he attended. Those meetings took place in the months leading up to the presidential election, while Johnson was serving as unofficial transition-team leader, collecting resumes and vetting applicants for a future Bush administration. Johnson, Bush's college roommate, is now the deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget. Businessman Abel Guerra got a gratis trip to Austin courtesy of the committee, in June 2000. He is now at the White House Office of Public Liaison, along with Adam Goldman, whom the governor's committee paid $3,150 a month plus hundreds of dollars for cell-phone calls throughout 2000. Goldman was one of a half-dozen staffers on the governor's committee payroll long after the 1998 election.
The committee also handled various odds and ends for the would-be president, such as buying an inaugural gift for Mexican President Vicente Fox (Bush couldn't make the ceremony) and hiring a translator for a joint international press conference the pair gave. Right around the time of the Republican convention, the committee paid $275 to one Glenda Facemire, head make-up artist for the TV show Austin City Limits. Facemire says she made up both George and Laura Bush all through the campaign. The governor's committee also spent thousands of dollars on podiums, graphic-design services, press conference equipment rentals, photography and lots of meals at the Austin Club throughout 2000. One of its biggest expenses was catering services at the governor's mansion, including a hefty $126,000 tab the night before the 2000 election. All told, the committee spent $550,000 in 2000 -- not a small sum for "state party activities."
Once Bush was inaugurated as president, his gubernatorial campaign started closing up shop. According to filings with the Texas Ethics Commission, the committee finally gave up its $2,000 a month office in early 2001 and it spent a paltry $87,000 the first six months of 2001 (compared with $320,500 during the previous six months). Still swimming in money, though, the campaign committee hung around for the next major election cycle. It gave a nice parting gift to the RNC just in time for the congressional midterms, with its last hurrah coming in June 2002 in the form of a $550,000 donation to the RNC. According to the committee's biannual report filed Jan. 22 with the Texas Ethics Commission, it's finally down to its last few bucks, meaning Bush's Texas governor's committee is just about done -- four years after his last race for governor.
Stephanie Mencimer is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.