Recently, the AP did a story on New Hampshire’s phone-jamming incident from the 2002 elections. I’ve covered it before several times, but here’s a quick recap:
In 2002, in a tight race for the US Senate, the New England Republican coordinator, James Tobin, arranged for a telemarketing firm to call in repeatedly to the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote line, so Democrats who needed a ride to the polls couldn’t get through. The Republican candidate ended up winning in a squeaker, and so far three of the officials behind the scheme have been convicted of federal charges.
The story the AP put out adds a few details. Apparently on and around, election day, Mr. Tobin made two dozen calls to the White House. This, coupled with the fact that the Republican National Committee has forked over a lot of money in Tobin’s defense (the last count was around $750,000, but the AP story says “millions,”) leaves the impression that this scandal is a LOT bigger than has been revealed so far.
The RNC money is indeed a scandal, one that they need to explain now. Actually, they should have explained it a long time ago, and story isn’t going away. But the latest attempt to tie the scandal to the White House just doesn’t hold up.
To properly explain why I’m not buying the Republican connection, I need to go into some detail about the 2002 Senate race. It was an incredibly complicated period in New Hampshire political history, and not something that can be easily summed up.
(A brief disclaimer: I am not a Republican. From the spring of 2000 until December 2004, I was a registered Democrat, but that was I had declared myself a Democrat to vote for Bill Bradley in the primary — that race seemed far more interesting than the GOP one, where Bush had it pretty much sewn up. I forgot to un-enroll after voting, and didn’t get around to visiting City Hall and re-registering as an independent until a little over a year ago. That stretch was the only time in my life I spent more than ten minutes as a member of either party. I have always considered myself an independent voter, not interested in belonging to any party. In fact, in the last election, I split my vote between two Republicans and two Democrats. Three of my picks — President Bush, Congressman Bradley, and now-Governor Lynch — all won. The fourth, Doris “Granny D” Haddock, never had a chance to unseat Senator Judd Gregg, but I’ve never been able to stand him.)
The incumbent Senator at the time was Bob Smith. Smith represented what I call the “arrogant stupid” wing of the New Hampshire. (Senator Judd Gregg is the titular head of the other wing, the “arrogant rich.”) Smith had been in the Senate for 12 years, and had built a reputation as an arch conservative — just not a terribly bright one. In 2000, he toyed with the idea of seeking the presidency, playing on his “favorite son” status in New Hampshire. When the cold reality set in, he decided that his campaign was far too important than petty party politics, so he bolted the GOP and ran as the candidate of the U.S. Taxpayers Party. A month later, he bolted them, too, and continued as an independent. And when that fell apart, he slinked back to the GOP with his tail between his legs.
They took him back, but they knew damaged goods when they saw them. One of New Hampshire’s two Congressmen saw the opportunity and challenged Smith in the primary — and beat him.
John E. Sununu was a three-term congressman at the time. He’s the son of John H. Sununu, former New Hampshire governor and co-host of CNN’s Crossfire who also served for a while as the first President Bush’s Chief Of Staff until his abuse of perks drove him to resign. (Sununu is another member of the “arrogant rich” faction.) The upstart congressman turned Buffalo Bob into a lame duck, then started looking towards the November election.
Sununu’s opponent in the general election would be formidable indeed. Jeanne Shaheen had an amazing record she was running on. She was New Hampshire’s first woman governor, and a Democrat to boot in a state that for decades had been rock-ribbed Republican. She was also very successful, winning re-election twice before leaving the corner office to run for the Senate. It was her best chance, with Smith taken out by a fellow Republican, and there were still a lot of resentment among Republicans. The Smith loyalists just might sit out the election entirely, giving the Democrats a chance to pick up one of New Hampshire’s four seats on Capitol Hill — seats that had been solidly in the GOP’s pocket for nearly a decade.
So that was the situation in New Hampshire in November 2002. It was a tight race, with both parties fielding very popular candidates with powerful, experienced machines. It was very much up in the air, adn at the time every single Senate seat was critical to both parties. Everyone said the New Hampshire race would be a bellweather on President Bush’s administration. And, in the end, Sununu won by 4%, 51-47, and the Republicans (in addition to keeping New Hampshire’s Senate seat) picked up two new seats.
In that environment, it would have been incredibly suspicious indeed if the White House did not keep in close touch with the New England coordinator. Bush campaigned for Sununu, the son of his father’s right-hand man. There was an element of dynastic politics involved, as well as the distinct possibility that the Republicans could lose the seat. (Hell, we even have a Democratic governor again.)
But would the White House have been a party to the phone jamming plot? I find that beyond incredible. For one, it was such a transparent, stupid play that it would have raised red flags with SOMEONE in the Bush administration, which has some of the most brilliant political minds in the country. (Just look at all the shenanigans Karl Rove is accused of engineering.) For another, I find it hard to believe that Mr. Tobin would have shared his brilliant plan with more people than absolutely necessary. “Three can keep a secret if two are dead” are words to live by. There was absolutely no reason to tell the White House how he was planning to win the race. In fact, it’d probably be better if he didn’t share the details, but just to appear as a genius.
There is definitely more to this scandal than has come out so far. I am thrilled that three of the plotters have been convicted and are facing jail time, but I still want to know just why in hell the Republican National Committee has forked over so damned much money (that they have been given by their loyal supporters) to defend these scum. More significantly, they have yet to offer a single word of explanation as to why they are doing it. The news story hints that current GOP National Chairman Ken Mehlman might — might — have been involved or aware of the phone-jamming scandal, but there’s nothing concrete.
The phone-jamming scheme was vile, perverse, and flagrantly illegal. I am delighted that Mr. Tobin has been convicted, and two others — another GOP official and the president of the telemarketing firm that made the calls — have pleaded guilty. I think it’s ludicrous to think that any high-ranking White House officials would have been involved or even aware of the story, but there HAS to be something rotten at the RNC if they’re still paying for those scum’s defense.