Rove talks about West Virginia in Lincoln Day speech

By Chris Dickerson | Feb 14, 2007


A statue at the state Capitol Complex is called Lincoln Walks At Midnight. It faces the Kanawha River.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – In Abraham Lincoln's hometown on Lincoln's Birthday, President Bush's chief strategist was thinking about West Virginia.

Karl Rove, who generally is credited with crafting Bush's two presidential victories, used the Mountain State -- which joined the union when Lincoln was president -- as an example of how a state can flip party allegiance in a short period of time.

Speaking at the annual Sangamon County Republican Lincoln Day Luncheon in Springfield, Rove said an aggressive grassroots push and a strong effort to get out the vote was why Bush won West Virginia in 2000 and 2004.

"I remember West Virginia," Rove said. "I remember going to West Virginia and outlining our grassroots campaign. … We had taken Lincoln's words to heart."

Those words, according to Rove, were, "Make a perfect list of the voters, ascertain with certainty for whom they will vote, have the undecideds talked to by someone whom they hold in confidence. And on Election Day, make certain that every Whig is brought to the polls."

Rove said he and others spoke to West Virginia GOP leaders as the 2000 campaign was just getting started.

"We want you to make a couple hundred thousand phone calls, knock on a hundred thousand doors and put up fifteen thousand yard signs and … have three headquarters and this many bumper stickers," he said as he recalled the meeting. "You do this, and we'll run television ads. And the presidential and the vice presidential candidates will come here three times. You raise this little bit of money, and we'll give you this big bunch of money in order to do this."

Rove said he then asked the West Virginia leaders what they thought

"Sitting in a crummy little hotel in Charleston, West Virginia, everybody sat there quiet," he said. "Didn't say a single word.

"Afterward, one of the guys who was in the meeting said to me – he had been the party chairman in the 70s – he said to me, 'Look, you sounded like the men from Mars.' He said, 'You gotta remember the last time we had a Republican presidential headquarters was for six weeks before the 1972 election. And you were asking us to open up three headquarters seven months before the election. The last time the presidential ticket came to West Virginia was 1956. Nixon dropped in at the airport. And you were talking about bringing the presidential and vice presidential ticket here three times and running television ads to boot.'"

"So being stupid enough not to know that it couldn't be done, they said, 'OK, we'll try,'" Rove said. "And they did it."

He said that at the end of the campaign in West Virginia, the party had surpassed every measure.

"They hit every target," he said. "They made more phone calls, knocked on more doors, put out more yard signs, distributed more literature, mailed more pieces of mail. They didn't have three headquarters. They had 28."

Then he recalled a later visit to one of those tiny headquarters. He doesn't say which one, but it likely was in Ripley.

"Now, some of them weren't much bigger than this head table," Rove said. "I went to one of them in a little town in West Virginia a couple of years later. We were there for the Fourth of July. The local Republican chairman said, 'Hey, you want to see our headquarters from 2000?' I said, 'Sure.'"

The man took Rove to an abandoned storefront with a big hole in the front window.

"He said, 'What we'd do is we'd run a phone line out of the real estate office two doors down … and put it through the hole in the window and plug it into a telephone.' And the last volunteer each night had the responsibility of unplugging the phone and taking it home with them, rolling up the line and throwing it back through the mail slot at the real estate office."

Rove then pointed out that Bush won West Virginia by 6 percentage points in 2000 after Bob Dole lost by 16 percentage points here in 1996. It also had been more than 70 years since a Republican took the state in an open presidential race.

"That means a 22-point swing in one election," he said. "That means 40 percent of the people who voted for Clinton/Gore in 1996 turned around and voted for Bush/Cheney in 2000.

And by 2004, old John Kerry came running for West Virginia. He was going to contest it real hard. But all of that enthusiasm that had been built up … Man, we carried the state by 14 points."

Rove also touched on the 2002 elections in West Virginia.

"I happened to be over there the day after the filing deadline in 2002," he said. "The state party chairman comes up to me and says, 'You can't believe it. We've had more people file for county office and state Legislature than we've ever had file for office in the history of the modern Republican Party in West Virginia.'

"And you know why it happened?" Rove asked the Illinois crowd. "Because the grassroots of the party reinvigorated itself and renewed its commitment to do exactly what Lincoln said in 1840."

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