The Other Republican

Had November 7 put an end to this year's campaign frenzy as election days normally do, political analysts would now be focusing much more attention on the Republicans' unexpectedly strong showing in the House--and on the man who has as solid a claim as any to credit for that outcome: John McCain. Throughout the fall, the Arizona senator crisscrossed the country in support of some 50 Republican congressional candidates, using campaign appearances to douse candidates with much-needed free media, headlining fundraisers (no soft-money fundraisers, thank you), and cutting commercials for radio and TV.

"He was the Republicans' secret weapon," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. According to campaign-finance-reform activist Fred Wertheimer, "McCain's really a hero in the House. Tom Davis [head of the Republicans' House campaign effort] treated him like he was their leader. Republicans really wanted him in their districts."

Even a cursory look at this year's election map shows why McCain was a key factor. Republicans retained their majority in the House largely because of wins in a string of supercompetitive races stretching in a broad arc from Michigan down into Pennsylvania and up into Connecticut. The key winners included Republicans Mike Rogers in Michigan, Mark Kirk in Illinois, Pat Tiberi in Ohio, Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania, Shelly Moore Capito in West Virginia, Mike Ferguson in New Jersey, and Rob Simmons in Connecticut. (All but one of these were open seats; Simmons unseated 10-term Democrat Sam Gejdenson.) Each of these candidates ran on McCain-like agendas, each ran in parts of the country where McCain was particularly popular, each got generous campaign assistance from the senator (often with widely publicized joint appearances in the campaign's final days), and each pulled through by an exceedingly small margin.

It's difficult, perhaps impossible, to say that McCain made the difference in this or that race. But in a year when many House Republicans felt stiffed by the man at the top of the ticket, McCain's work on their behalf--even while the senator was being treated for skin cancer--is not being forgotten.

The fact that McCain was in such demand in so many races is a testimony not only to his unique strengths but also to his party's persistent difficulties outside its strongholds in the South. Ever since the Republican high-water mark of 1994, the GOP has consolidated its hold on the South and the mountain states while steadily, albeit slowly, losing ground in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the West Coast. Like southern Democrats of a generation ago, the trend has left dozens of House Republicans seeking re-election in places where the Republican label is an ambiguous blessing.

"Our national party is a stigma in many parts of the country," McCain's chief strategist, John Weaver, recently told me. "Many of our party leaders come from safe southern districts. They're insulated from the reality of everyday [political] life." (When I asked Weaver why McCain had made so few appearances in the South, he quickly shot back, "Not a lot of invitations," before composing a more diplomatic reply.) This regional imbalance is not so much of a difficulty for Senate Republicans, whose majorities rest disproportionately on sparsely populated states in the South and the Rockies. But in the House, where the party must at least hold its own in every region, it's a constant problem.

Thus McCain's special appeal: His popularity cut most deeply in those sections of the country where the national Republican Party has fallen on the hardest times--regions like the Northeast and the upper Midwest. If you were a Republican congressional candidate running in a swing district in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, John McCain wasn't just the best big-ticket national Republican you could get to cut a commercial or make an appearance in your district: He was really the only one who would do you any good.

It was no accident that House campaign chief Tom Davis and a group of House Republicans were the ones who led an unsuccessful effort to put McCain on the GOP ticket. He had a credibility and a reach that Bush simply lacked. As one aide to Congressman-elect Mike Ferguson put it, "In key races McCain definitely helped, especially where he did well in the primaries."

There is a long history of once-defeated presidential aspirants stumping for congressional candidates to build up goodwill for future White House runs. Richard Nixon did it in 1964 and 1966; Ronald Reagan, in 1978--and McCain's advisers closely studied these earlier efforts. But McCain's effort was unique in two key respects.

Though McCain was clearly intent on demonstrating his Republican loyalties, he also prioritized support for a signature issue: campaign finance reform. True, McCain could be maddeningly indulgent about whom he chose to include within the circle of reform. He even stumped for Michigan Senator Spencer Abraham, a classic money Republican. But the man had his limits: Die-hard opponents of campaign finance reform, like Arkansas Congressman Jay Dickey and Missouri Senator John Ashcroft (both of whom went down to defeat), asked for his help, but were denied. For all his party loyalty, McCain made it clear that he was fighting for more than just chits he could call in at some later date: He was trying to push his party in a particular direction.

Equally significant was the fact that McCain, unlike Nixon or Reagan, was a sitting senator. Never on great terms with his colleagues in the Senate, his aggressive advocacy on behalf of Republican House candidates was part of an unprecedented effort on the part of a member of one house of Congress to build up a base of support among members of the other. McCain had found a commonality of interest with members of one faction of the House GOP; like them, he had an uncertain relation with the dominant powers in the party. "After the [presidential] campaign was suspended," campaign strategist Weaver later explained, "we started to get a new appreciation for working with people in the House. You saw [McCain] do that not only on campaign finance reform, but also on prescription drugs, responsible gun measures. When we get into the new Congress, we're going to have a detailed reform agenda. Even though our party leadership may not have learned their lesson, we'll have new members in the House, newfound allies."

How will McCain try to use these newfound allies in the House? The chances for campaign finance reform next Congress are unusually good--one reason being the newly strengthened McCain and his pledge to keep the issue on the Senate floor until his bill gets a straight up or down vote.

But beyond McCain's signature issue, the agenda Weaver describes of "responsible tax cuts, paying down the debt, confronting the nation's health crisis, and passing campaign finance reform" sounds, rhetorically at least, a lot more like Al Gore than George W. Bush. What is evident, however, is that McCain's evolving role within the GOP will be twofold: both as a lifesaver and as a threat to the powers that be in his party. On the one hand, his presence--or at least the presence of some McCain-like sort of Republicanism--seems crucial to maintaining Republican majorities in Congress. On the other, McCain's brand of politics will serve as a standing challenge to the southern wing of the party, dominated by Tom DeLay and Trent Lott, which still controls the levers of power in the Congress.

"There are going to be two John McCains," says Fred Wertheimer. "There's the one in the Senate who is stronger but also has a lot of colleagues who are angry and resentful. Then there's the one who's a hero in the nation and in the House, not to Tom DeLay, but to Tom Davis." ยค