As House Democrats welcomed their newest Member to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Republican leaders used a weekly closed-door meeting to reassure their troops amid growing frustration within the GOP Conference about the lack of party message and dismal election prospects for the fall.
Those who attended the Tuesday morning GOP Conference meeting described the mood as somber and depressing — a stark contrast to the reaction Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) received a week ago when he laid out for his colleagues the reasons why Republicans can win in November.
Three days after that presentation, Democrats won a special election in Louisiana, picking up a seat that had been in GOP hands for more than three decades.
Republicans’ mood was further dampened Tuesday when former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) released a scathing assessment of the state of affairs for Congressional Republicans — much of which amounts to an indictment of party leadership.
Gingrich wrote in a missive posted online that the loss in Louisiana on Saturday should serve as a “wake up call” for Republicans. Boehner also delivered that message at Tuesday’s Conference meeting.
“Either Congressional Republicans are going to chart a bold course of real change or they are going to suffer decisive losses this November,” Gingrich wrote.
Boehner said Gingrich is echoing the same message of change and reform that he has been pushing for months. He also sought to hammer home Tuesday that Republicans can’t win exclusively by tying Democrats to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and his liberal views.
“Well, I agree with him — voters want change,” Boehner said. “And we need to be able to show voters that we want change.”
While Gingrich laid out nine “Acts of Real Change That Could Restore the GOP Brand,” Boehner has been leading an effort to refurbish the Republican Party’s image. Leaders have been saying for weeks that a rollout of the agenda is forthcoming, tentatively called “Reasons to Believe.”
“We have been clear over the past year that we have two jobs: defining the Democrats and defining ourselves,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. “In the coming weeks, we will be laying out Republican policies that embody the sort of changes we need.”
Next week, Republicans plan to roll out a family initiative that has been spearheaded by GOP Conference Vice Chairwoman Kay Granger (Texas) and will include kitchen-table issues. But it is not a product of the rebranding effort, and the uncertain time frame for rolling out a broader unified message has frustrated some rank-and-file Members.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who represents the suburban Atlanta district Gingrich once did, acknowledged that Members agree with some of Gingrich’s sentiments.
“I think we all share that frustration,” Price said, adding that Republicans need to produce an agenda “sooner rather than later.”
“The challenge we have as a Conference is to coalesce behind one list,” Price said. “But do we need to produce that? Yes.”
Gingrich, who led the House GOP to power in the 1994 Republican revolution, also wrote that Republicans should convene an emergency Members-only meeting to frankly discuss their party’s course.
Gingrich proposed that if the majority of Members want change, Boehner and his team should develop a plan that would include a change in legislative, communications and campaign strategies and also a complete overhaul of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Gingrich wrote that if most Members vote to proceed with the status quo, the Members who want change should proceed independently.
“If a majority of the House Republicans are opposed to acting then the minority who are activists should establish a parallel organization dedicated to real change,” Gingrich wrote. “This group should focus its energies on creating the changes necessary to survive despite a conference with a minority mindset that accepts defeat rather than fights for real change (which is what we had when I entered Congress in 1978).”
Without directly addressing Gingrich’s idea for an emergency meeting, GOP Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) said Members already meet regularly and those meetings will continue.
Foremost on the minds of most Members at Tuesday’s Conference meeting was the GOP’s loss of former Rep. Richard Baker’s (La.) seat and the prospects that the party could lose another GOP seat in Mississippi on May 13.
After the meeting, many Republicans privately grumbled that NRCC Chairman Tom Cole’s (Okla.) explanation for what happened in Louisiana closely resembled the excuse for why Republicans lost the special election to replace former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) earlier this year: a flawed candidate. Former Louisiana legislator Woody Jenkins (R), like millionaire businessman Jim Oberweis (R) in Illinois, had high negatives. But there are overarching concerns about campaign strategy as well.
“People realize that in Louisiana and Illinois, we had candidates who were flawed, and that was a principal reason for their defeats,” said one Republican Member. “But there’s concern, too, about the overall political environment. A lot of Members realize that we need to be drawing sharper contrasts with Democrats.”
There is also building frustration among Members about some of the NRCC’s strategic decisions in the Louisiana race as well as the committee’s policy of not getting involved in primaries this cycle.
In previous cycles, Republicans didn’t hesitate to maneuver behind the scenes — and sometimes in public — to get their desired candidate as the nominee in competitive races.
“I think there’s a general consensus now that not engaging in the primaries in Illinois and Louisiana, it hurt us greatly,” said one Republican lawmaker, who asked not to be identified.
“At least covertly, you need to be involved in that process,” added a GOP leadership aide.
There has also been some grumbling about the NRCC’s decision to inject Obama into the Louisiana race as part of an effort to link national Democrats to newly sworn-in Rep. Don Cazayoux (D). Louisiana’s 6th district has about a 30 percent black voting-age population, and anecdotal evidence indicates that black voter turnout was huge in Saturday’s election.
Another GOP lawmaker said Republicans were encouraged by American Viewpoint polling results presented during their morning huddle. That survey showed that based on what they’ve learned over the last three months, 49 percent of voters said they are less likely to vote for Obama, compared with 40 percent who said they are more likely to support him. “His poll results have flipped upside down,” the lawmaker said.
But part of Gingrich’s message to House Republicans Tuesday was that lawmakers can’t count on the coattails of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
“McCain’s lead is a sign of the gap between the McCain brand of independence and the GOP brand,” Gingrich wrote. “No regular Republican would be tying or slightly beating the Democratic candidates in this atmosphere. It is a sign of how much McCain is a non-traditional Republican that he is sustaining his personal popularity despite his party’s collapse.”
Boehner and Cole in making the case of possible GOP successes this fall have been touting how McCain will benefit downballot races.
But the realization that Republicans need more than that is beginning to sink in.
“That’s what I think people are starting to realize here,” said the GOP leadership aide. “He’s not our savior.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.