How the Bush Administration Handled Its Romanoff/Sestak-esque Dilemma

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Thursday, June 03, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Republicans are working overtime today to make political hay out of Colorado Senate hopeful Andrew Romanoff’s revelation that the White House suggested three jobs that might be open to him should he abandon a Democratic primary challenge to appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — following a similar unpaid job floated to Joe Sestak, the victor in last month’s Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary.

As Roll Call reports, the GOP’s next step is raising questions about whether Bill Halter, the Democratic rival of incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), was similarly enticed to drop out of his race. Meanwhile, an aggrieved sentiment is running through much of the Romanoff coverage on conservative blogs as the GOP base imagines how the media would have salivated over a similar political misstep by the Bush administration. (See the first comment on this American Spectator post, for example.)

In fact, the Bush White House faced its own Romanoff/Sestak-style dilemma in New Hampshire in 2002.

That year found then-Rep. John Sununu (R-N.H.), the son of George H.W. Bush’s former chief of staff of the same name, mounting a primary challenge to incumbent Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.). The younger Bush’s team made clear that it preferred Sununu over Smith, a perennial gadfly who once briefly bolted the Republican party.

After a bitterly contested race, Sununu ultimately prevailed — and Smith, apart from a public endorsement of his younger foe, notably declined to help Republicans hold onto the seat in the general election. In a post-election interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader that year, Smith was asked to address “unsubstantiated reports … that the Bush administration was hoping to lure Smith out of the Senate race by offering him a post in the administration.”

As Smith told the newspaper:

“No one ever spoke to me from the administration about a job, not at any time prior to the primary,” he said. “Nor did I ever receive word of an offer through any back channels.”

Smith’s use of the phrase “not at any time prior to the primary” sound somewhat loaded, considering a Roll Call report published in late October 2002 that featured Karl Rove dangling a job before Smith in exchange for a more full-throated show of support for Sununu:

Before Bush traveled to New Hampshire in early October to appear at a rally for Sununu, GOP sources said Rove called Smith three times to urge him to fly to Manchester with the president aboard Air Force One. Rove wanted a display of Republican unity that has been lacking in New Hampshire since Sununu beat Smith in the bitterly fought Sept. 10 primary.

Rove even suggested that there could be a potential payoff for Smith if he cooperated, hinting that a job with the Bush administration could be in the offing, said the sources.

Rove told Smith, who is attending the World Series this week, that he “needed to make a decision and it could affect his future,” said one GOP insider.

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