Republican Mike Ferguson is vying for a hotly contested open seat in central New Jersey. He's running squarely in the center, playing up his commitment to improving the public schools and passing gun control legislation. The one taboo: any talk of George W.
When pressed for Ferguson's views on Bush's Social Security initiative--or any of the nominee's Real Plans for Real People--his press secretary Annie Mayol demurs: "The answer would be that there are parts of the Bush plan that are good, but that's it." Ferguson "wants to look at different reform proposals. He's seen what's out there, but he doesn't know which is the best one."
Not only is Ferguson running away from Bush, but he's also trying his hardest to associate himself with crossover stars. Mayol crows that one of Ferguson's pet projects, a bipartisan pledge to protect Social Security, has been endorsed by the likes of Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, and Bob Franks, the district's Republican congressman who is stepping down to seek his fortune in the Senate race. No mention of Bush, who also signed on.
Ferguson is typical of a number of Republican hopefuls in close contests around the country. Even in moderate districts, most Democrats are happy to run under the Gore/Lieberman umbrella, while Republicans are quick to distance themselves from the Bush platform--and to align themselves with McCain. Consider the race for Silicon Valley's open seat between Democrat Mike Honda and Republican Jim Cunneen. According to Honda's press secretary Vince Duffy, "Cunneen made comments about how great George Bush was in 1997 and 1998, but now, when we bring them up, he calls the claims outrageous and says he's personally affronted... . If anything, he aligns himself with John McCain and the idea of independent reform."
McCain's appeal extends beyond California, which has a history of independent-minded voters, deep into the heart of GOP territory. In May The Washington Post released a list of the hottest House races. Half of the Republican candidates in the 24 races highlighted--spanning from the traditionally liberal Northeast to the more Bush-friendly South to the contested Midwest and mountain states--prominently displayed McCain's name or face on their Web site or in their campaign literature. Six fronted pictures of McCain on their home page, and another four hyped press releases of joint appearances at fundraisers or campaign events. Two publicized legislation they had co-sponsored with the Arizona senator. None of the sites featured George W. Bush.
Few have gone as far as Mark Nielsen, a congressional candidate from Connecticut, who on the same day he was scheduled to campaign with Dick Cheney released a commercial featuring pictures of McCain, Lieberman, and George Bush the elder, under the banner "leaders of honor and integrity." Conspicuously absent from most Republican campaign material is any reference to the top of the ticket. Two candidates on the Washington Post list--Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Mike Rogers of Michigan--include a nod to Bush on their Web sites, but even these mentions are halfhearted. Rogers's site has a link to Bush's online headquarters right next to a link to Straight Talk America, McCain's Web site, which pledges to "continue our mission" of reform.
The biggest wedge between Bush and his Republican troops is the debate over how to spend the surplus. Party moderates want nothing to do with Bush's $1.3-trillion tax cut. They already learned their lesson last year, when the House's own $792-billion tax cut failed to generate interest. Even its Takin' It to the Streets campaign--a series of town meetings, radio appearances, and rallies designed to get Americans excited about the money that would soon be lining their pockets--fell flat. President Clinton vetoed the bill, and Republicans gave up their bold rhetoric about across-the-board cuts for the nuts and bolts of the marriage penalty and the estate tax.
With the memory of last year's tax flop still fresh, Republicans in close races are hesitant to endorse Bush's tax proposals. Melissa Hart, a Republican battling for a seat in Pennsylvania left open by Democrat Ron Klink, who is running for Senate, favors reducing the tax burden. But as her campaign manager Christian Marchant said, "She might not sign on to the Bush plan because it's extremely large." Instead, Hart favors the slate of scaled-back tax proposals that have formed the centerpiece of this congressional session. Ditto Jim Saxton in New Jersey, Brian Bilbray in California, and Heather Wilson in New Mexico.
Of course, some Republicans are still loath to appear out of step with the national ticket. When Pat Tiberi, an Ohio Republican running to replace the retiring John Kasich, was singled out by The New York Times as "distancing himself" from Bush's tax cut proposal, he cried foul, writing a letter to the paper to correct what he claimed was a misquote. "Far from distancing myself from George Bush's tax cut plan," he wrote in the unpublished letter, "I wholeheartedly support letting American taxpayers keep more of what they earn." Republicans in open districts are walking a tightrope. If they endorse the Bush plan, they risk losing the center--the undecideds, the independents, and the former McCain Republicans. But they have to be careful not to appear too vocal in their disdain, lest they alienate party loyalists.
Writing in The American Spectator last fall, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, predicted that "if Republicans can hold together on the tax fight they will sweep the 2000 elections." Far from holding together, Republicans are pulling apart. As Bush charges ahead with the "tax fight" that Norquist thought would be the ticket to Washington, few teammates are cheering from the sidelines. ¤