Bush Campaign Veterans Make Electoral Comeback

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 6:00 am
Tim Griffin, Barbara Comstock and Karl Rove (Tim Griffin for Congress, Comstock for Delegate, White House photo)

Tim Griffin, Barbara Comstock and Karl Rove (Tim Griffin for Congress, Comstock for Delegate, White House photo)

For a candidate making his first bid for office, Tim Griffin couldn’t be in better shape. One week after announcing his campaign against Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), the incumbent in Arkansas’s most Democratic-leaning district, Griffin had raised $130,000. A Public Policy Polling survey released last week found Griffin only one point behind Snyder, a statistical tie with a congressman who did not even draw a challenger last year.

[GOP1] Griffin’s success so far has come with a price. In 2000 and 2004 he worked for the Bush-Cheney ticket; in 2004, according to a BBC investigation, he was involved in an effort to challenge the registrations of voters who weren’t at their regular addresses. In December 2006 he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, but he resigned six months later, taking heat for being placed in the job without Senate approval. His political re-emergence has been made possible by the connections he made during the Bush years. His campaign, however, has nearly nothing to do with his experience under the previous president.

“When I go around the district here in Arkansas,” Griffin told TWI before attending a D.C. fundraiser last week, “what I hear about is jobs, private sector versus the government, the national debt, and this health care bill.”

Asked again if his experience working the Bush administration ever comes up with voters, Griffin was insistent. “No,” he said. “No, no, no.”

Griffin’s experience isn’t unique. Nearly a year after George W. Bush left office, some of the Republican strategists who built their reputations on his campaigns, or in his White House, have re-emerged as prominent pundits, legal thinkers and strategists, and some have made the move back into the electoral arena. So far, they’ve had considerable success in winning and in setting up credible operations for 2010. In Minnesota, Sara Taylor, Bush’s former director of the Office of Political Affairs, is advising Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s (R-Minn.) PAC. In Virginia, Republican lawyer Barbara Comstock — who worked for John Ashcroft’s Justice Department and who helped defend I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby — won a tight election for a seat in the House of Delegates. That was a victory that some Democrats see as a prelude to a run for Congress when Comstock’s mentor Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) retires.

It’s a perplexing situation for Democrats. Bush’s presidency had staggered to an end. His approval rating did not rise above 50 percent for the last three years of his tenure; he did not hit the campaign trail for his party’s national ticket in 2008, and only addressed the Republican National Convention via a satellite feed. Democrats felled Republican after Republican in 2008 by putting their headshots next to Bush’s. In the year that’s followed, though, Democrats have watched former Vice President Dick Cheney (and his daughter Liz) resurface as a conversation-driving critic of their foreign policy. Bush Justice Department lawyers like John Yoo and Jay Bybee have thrived in their perches in academia and on the federal bench, respectively. In this year’s race for governor in New Jersey, Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine attacked his Republican opponent, Chris Christie, for having political conversations with Karl Rove while still serving as a U.S. attorney. Christie won the election anyway.

If there’s a way to turn service under Bush into a losing issue for Republican candidates, Democrats haven’t figured it out. Comstock’s upset victory in Virginia, in a race where both candidates spent nearly $1 million, came after months of attacks on her political service. Democrats went after the candidate’s ties with gimmicks like “Barbara Comstock’s lost resume” — experience like “initiated negative campaigning ‘storyline’ against Al Gore,” references like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. TV ads and direct mail portrayed Comstock alongside the likes of Cheney and former Attorney General John Ashcroft. And Comstock didn’t wilt under the pressure. She welcomed backing from Republican allies up to and including Rove, who appeared at a September fundraiser on her behalf.

“Elections are always about the future and responding to what people are doing in their everyday lives,” Comstock told TWI, while also saying that she did not want to dwell too much on the attacks against her. “When you don’t do that, well, you look at some of these past elections for Republicans when people didn’t feel we were responding on those economic issues and we lost. In Virginia, we dealt with those real kitchen table issues.”

Democrats viewed Comstock’s win as insult added to an already injurious election night, a defeat that could have been prevented if she hadn’t been allowed to re-make her image. “Comstock ran an effective race,” said Matt Mansell, executive director of the Virginia House Democratic caucus. “She started communicating early and got the best of both worlds by presenting herself as a solutions-oriented moderate candidate while still getting fund-raising help from Ted Olsen and Mitt Romney and Karl Rove.” The party’s mistake, said Mansell, was not “to define her earlier as a Bush political hack.”

Not surprisingly, Comstock’s success has given a little bit of cheer to other veterans of the Bush administration who have been tarred by the association. Hans van Spakovsky, who was pilloried by Democrats over his work as voting section counsel to the assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division, told TWI that his career options were limited by those attacks.

“They were so effectively able to ruin my professional reputation as a lawyer,” said Spakovsky, who now works at the conservative Heritage Foundation, “despite the fact that they were wrong on all of these issues. I couldn’t get confirmed to the FEC. When I was looking for jobs last year, it was very clear to me that at least one of the law firms I talked to in town blackballed me because I was in the Bush administration. It’s a real problem in Washington today that people on the left side of the aisle can’t seem to disagree with people without going after that.”

Tim Griffin’s re-entry into politics, said Spakovsky, was a source of new optimism. “I wish Tim Griffin the best of luck,” he said. “I’m happy to see people who are determined, like him, start to fight back.”

If local Democrats have their way, Griffin’s comeback won’t take him all the way to Congress. “If he’s the nominee against Vic Snyder,” said Mariah Hattah, executive director of Arkansas Democratic Party, “it would pit a proven public servant against a campaign operative who worked for Karl Rove, the master of the dark arts of campaigning.” Hattah getting into a striking degree of specificity for a campaign that is still taking shape, suggested that state Democrats would make voters aware of the “caging” scandal that dogged Griffin before he left the U.S. attorney’s office. “No one likes likes voter suppression,” she said.

David Wasserman, the House race editor of the Cook Political Report, said that Democrats’ chances at making Griffin toxic depend wholly on the political environment. “In any other year that line on the resume would be a huge vulnerability,” said Wasserman. ‘But when the environment is good, it’s like Democrats are wearing velcro, and the Republicans are wearing teflon.”

In the meantime, Griffin is keeping his head down, raising funds and leaving aside much talk of his resume in the Bush years.

“I’ve done a lot of things in my career,” Griffin told TWI. “I’ve been in the army for 13 years. I’m a major. I went to Iraq. I’ve been an army prosecutor, and I’ve done a lot of things. And whatever I’ve done, I’ve just tried to do a really good job. Look — that’s politics. I don’t expect anything different. I’d say that if you get an opportunity to serve your president and your country, you take it.”

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