Republicans Give Hillary a Free Pass

John Spencer, the former mayor of Yonkers, N.Y., dropped into Washington Tuesday to get briefed by conservative think tank experts in preparation for two debates against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. No national Republican or Bush administration official conferred with Spencer, the party’s Senate nominee. That signifies Clinton is getting a free pass to pursue both national party-building and her own presidential ambitions.

"I’ve been stabbed in the back," Spencer told me. He had been urged to run by party leaders but then received no support from them, financial or otherwise, at either the national or state level (not even from the Republican governor of New York). Trying to campaign in the Empire State with a ludicrously small budget of half a million dollars, Spencer is unknown to 75 percent of New York voters. He will get rare statewide television exposure, Friday night and Sunday morning, in the only two debates accepted by Clinton.

With the McCain-Feingold campaign reform severely restricting funds for political parties, the White House and Republican National Committee (RNC) have concentrated on supporting the party’s incumbents, who are needed to keep GOP control of Congress, rather than helping long shot challengers. That means the Republicans are playing defense, permitting Clinton to crisscross the country raising an estimated $20 million in party funds. The absence of a viable opposition enabled her to go to Miami last Friday for a $10,000-a-plate dinner funding the impoverished Florida Democratic Party.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), met Spencer when he came to Washington in May 2005 to explore a Senate campaign. "You have a compelling story," she told Spencer. A Vietnam War combat officer, recovering alcoholic and a self-made businessman, he was a unique mayor in New York who governed effectively as a tax-cutting conservative. Clinton in the Senate has voted against tax cuts while her state has lost 74,000 jobs amid national prosperity.

Once he decided to run, Spencer cleared out potential opponents for the Republican nomination (Edward Cox, Richard Nixon’s politically inexperienced son-in-law, and Jeanine Pirro, the former district attorney who attracts bad publicity). But Spencer was not permitted the luxury of an unopposed primary. K.T. McFarland, long ago a speechwriter for Henry Kissinger who had been considering a congressional candidacy as a liberal Republican, suddenly entered the race with suspicious financing from Lionel Pincus and other Clinton backers.

Even after Spencer’s landslide primary win over McFarland on Sept. 12 eliminated the pretext for neutrality, big name New Yorker Republicans did not help. Rudy Giuliani, his former mayoral colleague, has not endorsed him (perhaps because Spencer, in a debate with McFarland, said Giuliani was too liberal for him to back as president). Spencer has been awaiting an endorsement from his old friend Gov. George Pataki (perhaps because in the same debate, Spencer said Pataki was not an "excellent" governor).

The worst news for Spencer after the primary came from Washington. The RNC said there was simply no money to spend against Clinton. The same was true of the NRSC, notwithstanding Sen. Dole’s enthusiasm a year earlier. Seeking money outside official channels, Spencer’s agents approached Washington fund-raising superstar Jack Oliver, who had brought in $1 billion all told for George W. Bush’s political operation. But Oliver responded that he needed an endorsement from Pataki, who as of this writing has remained silent.

Nobody can really imagine John Spencer defeating Hillary Clinton no matter how much his party supports him. But with the creative political consultant and pollster John McLaughlin setting the strategy for the Republican long shot candidate, life could have been made uncomfortable for the taut-nerved senator and surely could have confined her to her home base.

It makes no difference to the Republican Party’s national strategists that Spencer is a pro-life, pro-tax cut, pro-Bush Republican. The party establishment’s course is to concentrate on incumbent Republicans with any chance to survive, even if they are apostates to the degree of Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who could not bring himself to vote for the president’s re-election. The upshot boosts Mrs. Clinton’s national aspirations.