By JAKE SHERMAN and MANU RAJU
When politicians head to New York, it’s often to fill their campaign coffers with Wall Street cash.
But there’s another important stop for Republicans in the Big Apple: the second floor office of Fox News chief Roger Ailes.
The draw to Ailes’s office in the News Corp. headquarters in midtown Manhattan was laid bare last week when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) met with him for a chat. On the same day, Boehner went on Ailes’s network and proclaimed that his House Republican Conference had a one-in-three chance of losing control of the chamber. It was a statement that helped shift the outlook for the 2012 elections, spawning days of news coverage about Republican chances of keeping the House.Boehner is hardly alone.
In Washington and New York, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) regularly speaks with the 71-year-old Ailes, a confidant of more than two decades, aides said. A Fox News spokesperson said Thursday Ailes and McConnell have spoken three times in the past year.
Freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said Ailes wanted to meet with him after several appearances on Fox. West described his recent meeting with Ailes this way: “I’m kind of like a new shiny toy he could play with for a little while. … And that was it, and he could throw me back in the corner.”
From leaders to lowly freshmen, Republicans are eager to get some face time with a powerful news executive whose megaphone can quickly shift the national debate. In an era of the 24-hour news cycle, in which lawmakers are angling to get on TV, it never hurts to be in good graces with perhaps the most influential news executive in the country.
A Fox News representative said Ailes also meets with Democrats, declining to identify the lawmakers and downplaying the significance of these meetings.
“Roger meets with celebrities, business leaders, newsmakers and political leaders at their request, and he meets with as many Democrats as he does Republicans,” the Fox News representative said. “Incidentally, if Roger had any influence on the Republican Party, they might be doing better than they are.”
Indeed, it’s hardly unusual for leaders in both parties to lobby news chiefs for coverage or for politicians to try to build relationships with evening news anchors and to court newspaper editorial writers. The image of the Georgetown dinner among leading politicians and newspapermen is one ingrained in the capital city, like former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his ties to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. And President Barack Obama has periodically held off-the-record meals with prominent media personalities.
An NBC News spokeswoman said it’s “standard practice” for news executives to meet with everyone from religious leaders to members of Congress in an off-the-record capacity during editorial board meetings.
“We are listeners,” she said. “We do not conduct these meetings to influence decision makers.”
A CBS News representative said lawmakers occasionally meet with executives.
Other networks say they take a more hard-line approach. A CNN representative said that “this is not common practice of CNN news executives.” And an MSNBC official said such meetings with lawmakers do occur — but “infrequently.”
But unlike other news executives, Ailes carries an enormous amount of clout within a Republican Party that sees Fox News as the best way to get its message to the masses. Ailes has long ties to the GOP, having worked for Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Sometimes, according to lawmakers and aides, it’s Ailes that requests the meetings. Other times, high-profile Republicans try to nudge their way onto his schedule.
As a media-savvy political consultant, Ailes helped McConnell’s first Senate campaign in 1984. He is credited as the creative mind behind the now infamous advertisements of bloodhounds fruitlessly searching for McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Sen. Dee Huddleston, who Republicans alleged was shirking his Senate duties. The ads are widely credited with helping propel McConnell into higher office, and the two men still chat often about business and personal matters.
In his book “Bush at War,” Bob Woodward reported that Ailes gave President George W. Bush political advice in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, though Ailes disputed that account.
Ailes has a long career in TV news. Fox hired him in 1996, and he has worked in TV for decades, including stints at CNBC and locally televised show.
Republicans across Capitol Hill seem to value his expertise, as does Romney, who met with him recently during a trip to New York.
“They have mutual respect for one another,” a Romney aide said.
Some say they lobbied him for Fox to ramp up coverage on certain issues. Others say the senior news executive simply wanted to meet and shoot the breeze. And for others, the meeting was simple: Ailes is a powerful man, and his word is important.
Cory Fritz, a spokesman for Boehner’s political operation, would say only, “We don’t provide details on the speaker’s schedule.”
Graham, the South Carolina conservative, was one Republican who tried to persuade Ailes to prioritize coverage in different news areas.
“I wanted to inform the head of Fox News, which is a powerful voice in the Republican Party, about what’s going on in Africa,” said Graham, who fears that slicing foreign aid to the continent could set back humanitarian efforts in an economically and militarily crucial area of the world.
Graham said the two men spoke about the church that Ailes supports in Africa that has burned down a couple times.
“I just think this is something that we need to really focus on more as a nation,” Graham said about Africa.
Graham’s close friend McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee, also reaches out to Ailes from time to time. But, McCain says, he “never” lobbies for favorable coverage.
West said Ailes asked to meet with him after he began appearing on Fox News frequently. West said Ailes was curious about the lawmaker’s background, adding that the network executive thought West was a “pretty fascinating fellow.”
Asked what they spoke about, West said they were “not conspiring.”