Bush Wins the Cabela’s Election

Why a hunting store is the president’s favorite campaign stop.

For the millions of Americans who shop at Cabela’s, the 10-store outdoor sports retailer that bills itself as the “World’s Foremost Outfitter,” the main attractions are usually the impressive array of hunting equipment (including a “gun library” that features historic and limited-edition firearms), the stuffed hippos and polar bears, and the huge aquariums. These days, customers are also likely to find a Republican candidate.

Just as the Bush/Cheney campaign has been assiduously courting “NASCAR dads”—the president will visit his second NASCAR race of the season on Sunday—so too has it been making eyes at a related bloc of voters: Cabela’s shoppers. In early May, President Bush visited a Cabela’s in Prairie du Chien, Wisc. On July 31, the president dropped by the company’s newest store near Wheeling, W. Va. And a week later, on Aug. 6, Vice President Cheney appeared at the Cabela’s in East Grand Forks, Minn., for a town-hall meeting, telling the audience, “It’s not hard to get me into a Cabela’s. My wife, Lynne, will vouch for that,” a line that drew laughter from the 200 invited guests. (When President Bush returned to Wheeling on Aug. 29, he didn’t make it to the Cabela’s, but he did mention his previous visit, telling the audience that while he liked to hunt and fish, he now had to spend most of his time “hunting for votes.”)

During the 2000 presidential campaign, neither Bush nor Cheney (nor then-Vice President Al Gore and his running mate, Joe Lieberman) managed to visit a single Cabela’s outlet. “For some reason, we’re now on the political radar,” says Joe Arterburn, a Cabela’s spokesman.

That “some reason” is pretty obvious. The company, which is based in remote Sidney, Neb. (pop. 6,000), is a fertile target for the president. Its mammoth stores are practically the ideal Bush ecosystem. Hunting gear accounted for nearly one-third of Cabela’s $1.4 billion in sales last year, so it’s safe to assume that gun rights are a winning issue with Cabela’s shoppers. And Cabela’s stores seem strategically located for campaign purposes. The company has two stores in hotly contested Minnesota and one store each in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Last year, each store attracted over 4 million customers, and in some places the stores even beat out more established tourist attractions, such as Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and the Omaha Zoo. Customers often drive several hours, and even camp out overnight—most Cabela’s have separate RV facilities adjacent to the stores—before spending several more hours shopping.

During his stops, the president has hailed Cabela’s as a successful small business, though now that it’s a publicly traded company—it began selling stock in late June—with over 7,000 employees, it’s a stretch to call it a small business. Bush also likes to talk about the jobs the company is creating. Next year, Cabela’s expects to open three additional stores—two in Texas and one in Utah—and a typical store has more than 500 employees. (A Bush/Cheney campaign spokeswoman declined to comment on the Cabela’s visits.)

Cabela’s founders are big fans of the president, too. Dick and Mary Cabela, the husband and wife who launched the business in 1961 by selling handmade fishing flies through the local classifieds, have maxed out as donors to President Bush’s 2004 campaign and given thousands of dollars more to other Republican candidates and organizations. Arterburn insists the donations have nothing to do with the decision to host President Bush and Vice President Cheney. “We welcome any visit by Sen. Kerry or Sen. Edwards,” says Arterburn. “It’s part of our civic duty.” But neither Kerry nor Edwards has managed to swing by a Cabela’s—although both men describe themselves as avid hunters and supporters of the Second Amendment. Arterburn says the company was approached by the Kerry campaign to do an event at the Wheeling store, but he didn’t believe it involved a visit by either Kerry or Edwards. So far, though, nothing has been scheduled. “We’re going to be fair and balanced,” says Arterburn.

The Democratic candidates aren’t the only things missing from the Cabela’s campaign. To be considered a real political force—to compete with the “Soccer Moms” and “NASCAR Dads”—Cabela’s still needs to come up with a catchy name for its coveted bloc of voters. How about the “Cabela’s Cabal”? Or “Cabela’s Fellas”?