Election 2002: W. and the Boy Genius

KARL ROVE'S strategy for winning the midterm elections was risky and brash, like its author. Here is the inside story of how the President and his political strategist gambled it all and won

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 7)

Most campaigns begin the moment the previous one ends, and so this wild race, with its surprise ending, actually started quietly and methodically nearly two years earlier, in the weeks after Bush's presidential victory was confirmed. The Rove war room knows no armistice, and so in December 2000, when he hired Ken Mehlman, the key deputy who shares his devotion to the game, they started blocking out the map for the next election. Where had Bush done well in 2000? Where were vulnerable seats that could be picked off? And, most of all, who would carry the G.O.P. flag into the battles that mattered most?

Though Rove is often cast as Bush's conservative enforcer, his search for candidates was highly pragmatic. He wanted to know who could win; true believers did him no good if they were left smoldering at 35% on Election Day. That meant he didn't much care whose turn it was to run, who was owed a favor or whom the state-party elders had anointed. Complaints about his meddling soon spread across the country. But when it came to winning back the Senate, Rove had a strong ally in Senator Bill Frist, the Tennessee surgeon who was running the Senate campaign committee and who was determined to put enough races in play to give the Republicans a shot at getting their majority back.

The blueprint was born in the spring of 2001 in the private upstairs dining room of La Brasserie on Capitol Hill. Frist and his political director, Mitch Bainwol, ran through a PowerPoint presentation for Rove and majority leader Trent Lott that was based on some quiet polling in 10 key states. They had tested the names of potential Republican candidates--some of whom hadn't even decided to run. In Minnesota, former Democrat and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, who was planning a bid for Governor, actually looked as though he could knock off Paul Wellstone if he could be persuaded to run for Senate instead. In Missouri, G.O.P. Representative Jo Ann Emerson, who had replaced her husband after his death, lagged behind Senator Jean Carnahan in a potential "battle of the widows." But former Representative Jim Talent broke even with Carnahan. South Dakota looked promising if Representative John Thune could be persuaded to give up his run for Governor and challenge Democratic Senator Tim Johnson.

Frist concluded the rundown with a prediction of Republican victory if he had the financial support of the Republican National Committee. By the end of the campaign, the R.N.C. would give $15 million to Frist, seven times as much as its 1998 payout. That dinner launched a coordinated recruitment effort unprecedented in recent memory. Bush himself made the call to Thune; in Minnesota, Vice President Dick Cheney called Tim Pawlenty, the Republican majority leader in the Statehouse, just 90 minutes before he was set to announce his bid for the Senate and asked him to stand down so that Coleman could move in. The President's father, George H.W. Bush, tried unsuccessfully to persuade ex--New Jersey Governor Tom Kean to enter the race against then Senator Bob Torricelli.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7