Indiana Updates: John Gizzi and the GOP State Chairmen

Bidding Farewell to “Mr. Chairman”

Even more than going to the famed Motor Speedway last night, enjoying a barbeque dinner, or listening to an address by presidential hopeful Mitt Romney (introduced by Indianapolis GOP National Committeeman Jim Bopp as an eloquent man who “won’t speak of a misunderstandering of his strategery”), the highlight of the opening banquet of the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference here was clearly the surprise tribute to Bob Bennett, who is stepping down as Ohio’s Republican chairman next year after a record twenty years.

“I thought something was up when I saw all my former executive directors [at state party headquarters] here,” Bennett later remarked, “But then, they are all in private business and what better place to get business than the Midwest Conference?”

Indiana’s State Chairman Murray Clark and dinner speaker Romney both lauded Bennett, the longest chairman of either major party in the Buckeye State [eclipsing the 19-year state chairmanship of his mentor Ray Bliss, who also served as GOP national chairman from 1964-69] and dean of the current state party chairmen nationwide.  In addition, Massachusetts Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman read a letter of congratulations from former President George H.W. Bush.

To be sure, Bennett was someone whose emphasis on winning candidates rather than ideology often made him suspect in conservative circles.  In reminiscing with me before dinner, the Ohio man vividly recalled how his friend, former four-term Republican Gov. James Rhodes of Ohio, was their state’s favorite son for president in 1964 and then released the delegates before the San Francisco convention.  “That was fine with me because I was supporting [liberal New York Gov] Nelson Rockefeller,” Bennett recalled, “although I heard Rhodes tell him on the phone that ‘Rocky, that divorce and remarriage is killing you here.”  

Bennett freely admits that his belief was in party building, that “our state party got rid of its own platform and just adopts the platform of the candidate for governor and the national platform when it’s worked out,” and that his goal, like that of hero Bliss, was party building.  Even today, as younger, conservative state chairman call for rules changes that would permit states to nominate favorite son candidates such as Rhodes instead of the post-1972 rule requiring a majority of delegates from five states for a candidate to be nominated for president at a national convention, Bennett believes this will undercut “the grass-roots” and somehow weaken eventual chances of victory (although he did not admit to me how this would happen).  “When it come up again at the convention next year,” he said of the “favorite son” measure that is popular among conservatives, “I’ll vote against it.’

That being said, when the Cleveland CPA and onetime campaign manager for Republican Mayor Ralph J. Perk became state party chairman in 1988, Ohio Republicans held no statewide offices, were a minority in the state House of Representatives, and could not even afford to hold a state convention.  Using bottom-line business techniques, working hard with contributors who had grown discouraged, Bennett not only put the party back on its feet but oversaw it recapturing and holding the governorship in four straight elections, winning every statewide office and a majority in both Houses of the legislature and on the State Supreme Court.  Few state chairmen in any state could claim such a durable and lasting “win” record. 

Bennett, following in the path of Ray Bliss, sought the national chairmanship in 1997 but lost when he was beaten out for the coveted third place by Colorado’s Jim Nicholson, who went on to beat out two controversial front-runners for the job.

In recent years, the man everyone in Ohio GOP circles called simply “Mr. Chairman” or “The Chairman” took some hits.  There was grumbling about him being the highest-paid chairman of any state party and have a very generous expense account and perks–things, admittedly, the state party made no secret of.  As Brian Berry, Bennett’s first executive director told me, “Look, he gave up all outside business to be chairman and, with a record like that in fund-raising and winning, no one was going to say the chairman was overpaid.”

In ’06, Democrats finally bounced back, winning the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat, and all but one statewide office.  Bennett defenders noted that the GOP still held the Supreme Court and the state House.  And there were no calls for Bennett’s exit–a sign that the party recognized what he had done and that sometimes even the longest winning streaks had to end.

Perhaps the finest tribute to Bennett I found was when he introduced me to “my successor as state chairman, Kevin DeWine.”  The former speaker pro tem of the Ohio House, who was termed out of office last year, will be elected state chairman next year without opposition, and with Bennett’s blessing.  DeWine now serves as deputy chairman, a new position created for him by Bennett and the state committee.  How many leaders can leave office on their own timing and choose their own successors?

Fleischer in the Food Line
 “You started it all!” said the man in front of me at the Motor Speedway last night, as we waited in line for barbeque at the opening dinner of the Midwest Republican Conference.
Although he seemed a bit incongruous with an open shirt and blazer, I recognized the balding head and impish grin instantly:  Ari Fleischer, the first top spokesman to George W. Bush and the first press secretary I would deal with as a White House correspondent, was here as one of the Conference speakers.  Like everyone else, he waited in line for his fried chicken, coleslaw, and buns before the evening event, which featured Mitt Romney as dinner speaker.
Fleischer was referring to the rumors that first appeared in my column last December that the former press secretary and Westchester County, N.Y. resident might run for the congressional district that had just gone Democratic in elections the previous month. It certainly made sense to me:  as Fleischer himself always noted, we had known each other since he started his career as a spokesman back in 1982, on the campaign of Republican Assemblyman Jon Fossel in the same district against Democratic Rep. Dick Ottinger.  For Fleischer, who went on to serve as a field operative for the National Republican Congressional Committee and spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee before joining “Team Bush,” a race for Congress seemed the next natural step.
 But it was not to be.  Despite a flurry of resultant inquiries to him following my article, Fleischer said he would not run because he did not want to go back to Washington and “have my children grow up to be Redskins fans.”
 These days, private communications consultant Fleischer has been in the news as the key organizer of Freedoms Watch, a private group running commercials in support of the President on U.S. troops in Iraq.  Just this past week, Freedoms Watch (which, Fleischer told me, had raised more than $15 million by Wednesday), had gone into full throttle with its ad campaign nationally and both the group and Fleischer himself had been profiled in the Washington Post on the day we spoke.
“A lot of folks felt that if we cut off funding for the troops, we would lose, and that we must win in Iraq,” Fleischer explained, noting that the group he helped launch the group in part to oppose the left-wing, anti-war groups such as that sometimes appear to dominate the media on the issue of Iraq.  Freedoms Watch has a five member board, including former ambassador and onetime Republican National Committee Finance Chairman Mel Sembler, as well as such longtime Bush fund-raisers as Anthony Goya and Richard Fox.  The group will soon open a Washington DC office.
As we got through the line, other Conference participants came up to get autographs and pose for pictures with the man who won a following for his spirited exchanges with White House reporters at daily televised briefings from 2001-03.  As always, Fleischer spoke to me about his passion, the New York Yankees, and was delighted to learn that both my mother and father were also rabid fans of the American League team.

Did my reporting on him as a possible congressional candidate cause any trouble for Fleischer?  “Yes,” he replied without missing a beat, “When I said I would not run because I didn’t want my children to grow up to be Redskins fans, I got a lot of nasty letters and calls from Redskins fans!” 

The Lady Who Wasn’t There. . . . 
“The last time we saw each other we were in Memphis and I’m still at it.”
So Crystal Dueker, communications director for the unofficial committee to draft Condoleeza Rice for President, said upon greeting me at the Westin Hotel here, site of the Midwest Republican Conference.  When we last spoke two years ago in Memphis, Tenn. and the combined Southern and Midwest Republican Conference o ’05, Dueker and her friends were busily buttonholing delegates on behalf of the secretary of state, who has long insisted she will not be a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in ’08.
But Dueker and the “Think Condi” committee will have none of it.  When I asked if Secretary Rice has ordered her to cease and desist with the draft movement, Dueker said “I keep waiting for that phone call but it hasn’t come.”  She said the commmittee has so far raised more than $35,000 and predicted there will be fresh interest in a Rice candidacy in the fall when a new biography by my former colleague in the White House Press Corps, Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times, is published.
In other fresh developments, Dueker cited a recent Des Moines Register Poll of likely Republican presidential caucus participants:  when asked who they would like to see get into the presidential race that is not a candidate so far, Rice topped the field with 50%, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 48%, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson 45%, and Nebraska Sen. Fred Thompson 6%.
Dueker and her committee scored a victory recently when, she told me, South Carolina State GOP Chairman Kaeton Dawson told her he would have Rice listed on the state’s primary ballot because one doesn’t have to be an “official candidate” to be listed.
. . . .And The Man Who Wasn’t There
Newt Gingrich wasn’t at the Midwest Republican Conference.  But he might as well be, as the former House speaker’s name was bandied about and spoken of wistfully as a late entrant into the ’08 race.  Even at the barbeque that featured full-fledged presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a speaker, talk of what Newt will do when his nationwide conference on American solutions concludes at the end of September and, presumably, he will make his ’08 intentions known.
If recent activity is any signal of what Gingrich plans to do, he certainly looks like a candidate.  As one source close to the former speaker told me at the conference site at the Westin Hotel here, “In Ames, during the recent Republican straw vote, Newt had six workshops and had his own tent at the site of the “straw vote;”  in Wisconsin, he gave a recent speech on very short  notice to the Club for Growth and more than six hundred people turned out for it; and he conducted a workshop for the Chamber of Commerce–something some of his conservative fans complained about–and drew 150 people in person and more than 6000 tuning in the webcast.”
Although such a flurry of activity could be a sign of candidacy about anyone else, one finds such activity not unusual on the part of Gingrich and should be forewarned that it doesn’t necessarily mean he will run for sure.  When I recalled the quote of longtime Georgia Republican leader Howard “Bo” Callaway that “Newt gets three good ideas before breakfast,” the same source sighed and said “And that was before Newt got a blackberry!”

Veto SCHIP, Gov. Daniels Tells Bush
Indianapolis, Indiana–At a time when some Republican governors are pleading with President Bush not to make good on his threat to veto the expanded State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) passed by both houses of Congress, at least one governor not only urges the President to veto SCHIP but says that his state “can live” with the tightened constraints on the program that the Administration recently sent down to state health officials.

“I strongly urge the President to veto the SCHIP measure,” Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana told me shortly after his luncheon address to the Midwest Republican Conference here. Noting that the measure passed by the House and Senate shortly before Congress adjourned expands coverage of the program designed for needy families to those who have annual incomes as much as $80,000, Daniels said sharply: “SCHIP shouldn’t be for well-to-do families.” He added that if the expanded program were ever to become law, “don’t be surprised if we then have expansion into national health care.”
As to the recent letter from the Administration to state health officials sharply limiting the waivers that states have applied for wider application of SCHIP, Daniels, a onetime director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, said simply: “We can live with it.” The governor went on to voice his long-standing view that the health care issue “is a state prerogative” and that the answer to the health care problem was “a market-based solution and greater empowerment of the states.”

Shades of ’74 in Indianapolis!

Indianapolis, Indiana — As I prepared for my trip to the Midwest Republican Conference here, I began to get eerily familiar reminders of 1974 — the so-called “Watergate Year” and easily the most devastating political year for Republicans since World War II. Dogged by scandal, abandoned by donors and many reliable voters, Republicans were reduced to barley one-third of the seats in Congress and a minority of governorships and state legislatures in their hands.

One symptom of ’74 that pundits and pols still vividly remember was that, in many states and congressional districts, candidates who had been considered attractive Republican hopes opted not to run.  In Iowa, Missouri, and Connecticut, for example, the Republicans touted as the party’s best hopes in Senate races said they weren’t running and the GOP standard was thus carried by “B-team” candidates.  (They all lost.)

In confirming that we would meet at the barbeque featuring Mitt Romney at the Conference, veteran Ohio political consultant Rex Elsass also dropped a bombshell on me: the candidate he had assured me two days before had wrapped up the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce, former state Attorney General Jim Petro, had chosen not to run after all.  (It was a particular bombshell because HUMAN EVENTS’ print edition had just gone to press and I had printed Elsass’s previous assurance that Petro would be the nominee in the Columbus-area district.)

Now, a district that has been firmly in Republican hands for nearly-half a century could easily fall to Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, who came within just a bit more than 1000 votes of unseating Pryce last fall.

Such “no-goes” are not confined to Ohio.  Arriving in Indianapolis and heading for the Conference at the Westin Hotel, I inquired from party operatives about their chances of regaining the three U.S. House districts Democrats won from them in ’06.  It wasn’t a pretty picture:  no Republican name of substance has yet come up in the 8th District (Evansville) that Republican Rep. John Hostettler held for twelve years until his defeat by Democrat Brad Ellsworth in ’06; in the 2nd District (Terre Haute), where Democrat Joe Donnelly unseated Republican Rep. Chris Chocola last year, state and national GOP efforts to recruit two heavyweight contenders for ’08 — State Rep. Jackie Walorski and Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill — have fallen short.

In the 9th District (Lafayette), signs were strong that Republican Mike Sodrel and Democratic Rep. Baron Hill would have the fourth round of what seems an ongoing political rivalry.  Sodrel lost a close race to Hill in ’02, unseated him in ’04, and lost the rubber match to the Democrat in ’06.  Cam Savage, press secretary to Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and formerly press secretary to Sodrel, told me “Yes, I think Mike will run again, but he won’t announce soon.”

Privately, Republicans in the Hoosier State voiced doubts that they could recruit enough heavyweight contenders to overturn the 51-to-49 Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives.  As one operative told me, “Look, we urvived in three districts by less than 30 votes.  Had a handful of votes changed, the Democraic edge would be a lot bigger.”

Huckabee On A Roll!

Presidential politics was in full swing at the Midwest Republican Conference here, as Mike Huckabee brought the 400-plus guests to their feet with a fighting luncheon speech.

“I’m a little sick of runnng a credit card through the gas pump and knowing I just made the Saudi oil family a little more rich,” the former Arkansas governor told the cheering crowd, underscoring his call for energy independence by the United States.   Huckabee went on to decry spending “$250-to-half a billion dollars a year on compliance” by Americans with the federal income tax, and repeated his now-familiar call for a “fair [consumption] tax” that “a kid running a lemonade stand could understand.”

Serenaded by luncheon guests on his 52nd birthday (“Now tell me how great I look!” he joked to them), Huckabee also spoke of the Republican Party as “the party of Main Street and not Wall Street” and gave his reasons for being a Republican, which included his beliefs that “life begins at conception” and marriage “is between a man and a woman and nothing else.”

When I spoke to Huckabee before the lunch, he and top fund-raiser Chip Salzman made it clear that his stunning second-place finish in the Iowa “straw vote” ten days ago had given him the momentum of a rocket ship.  Having raised $1.3 million for his campaign up until the vote in Ames, Iowa, Huckabee “has now brought in several hundred thousand dollars just since then,” according to Salzman, formerly the top fund-raiser for onetime Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.).  In addition, the governor is sandwiching in his speaking engagements with a string of 20 fund-raisers, including events in Virginia, California, and Missouri. The Huckabee campaign also released a string of major political endorsements in New Hampshire, site of the first-in-the-nation primary. 

His recent fund-raising and publicity success notwithstanding, the Republican “man from Hope” did tell me before lunch that he finds distasteful the process by which candidates’ status is determined by how much money you raise.  “Successful fund-raising doesn’t make you credible — it just makes you rich,” he said, adding that his views are shared by some of the other B-Team candidates and that he may be endorsed by at least one who has dropped out of the race so far. 

“I understand the frustration [of candidates forced to drop out because of financial constraints],” he said, “and when money determines a president, we’ll have a plutocracy.  Like a growing number of state Republican chairmen, Huckabee voiced positive feelings about getting out of primaries in the future and letting states determine national convention delegates by convention or caucus (the venue for national convention delegate selection in most states up until the mid-1970’s.)  “It might be a better way [to select presidential nominees],” he told me, and went on to note that the present primary system “is consultant-driven and advertising-driven.  It’s hard for a candidate to study issues when he has to ask for money in small increments all the time.”

“You give me enough money,” said Huckabee with a laugh, “And I’ll look like my head should be Mount Rushmore.  But it wouldn’t be necesssarily true.”