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Roll Call

GOP Ready for Long Primary

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said a quick end to the presidential primary battle would be best so the GOP can unify around the nominee.

While House and Senate Republicans might be eager to have the GOP presidential primary wrapped up as soon as possible, they’re not holding their breath for a quick resolution and claim a protracted fight for the right to take on President Barack Obama will not affect their own electoral and legislative efforts.

“We’re going to go about our work in the House,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) told reporters Monday. “We’re going to focus like a laser on that, and I think all of that can be complementary to the discussions ongoing at the primary debates and levels and look forward to, again, our party emerging from all of this with solid support behind a candidate that can take Obama on.”

Still, Cantor has acknowledged that a quick end to the primary battle would be best.

“The more we can coalesce around a single vision with a nominee, I think the more straightforward the choice is going to be for the electorate. With the issues that need to be decided by this election … [having] the choice laid out as early as possible so we can begin in earnest a discussion of the issues” is best, Cantor said in an interview Friday during the House GOP’s retreat in Baltimore.

A veteran GOP operative with experience in House and Senate races agreed, explaining that, particularly during the next six months, Republicans in both chambers can largely act independently of the presidential candidates.

“I don’t think it’s either good or bad. I think everyone in Washington gets so wrapped up they don’t look more than a few weeks ahead,” the operative said. “It obviously didn’t have an effect on President Obama” in 2008 when he fought a drawn-out nomination battle with now-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Cantor argued that given the narrowly tailored agenda Republicans will be pursuing this year, “when all is said and done with the primaries, I think we’ll have a complementary agenda” for the presidential campaign.

Cantor and Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) outlined their legislative agenda for much of the year during the Baltimore retreat, and it is indeed designed to address the economy and to “reflect that in a very simple way,” Cantor said Friday.

Their goal, according to Cantor, is to pursue tax reform, energy and highway legislation, a repeal of Obama’s signature health care law and other “kinds of things that help put the vision out there,” regardless of the nominee.

That, in turn, will help the GOP on all levels make the case that “if Republicans are given the majority in the Senate, retain the majority in the House and [win] the White House, this is what the public can expect in terms of how our leadership is concerned.”

As for the campaign committees and individual members’ campaigns, a lack of a nominee is not much of a concern at this point.

“From a national perspective, obviously it matters who wins the primary process,” Cantor said. “But there’s also the need to explain the narrative for why an incumbent Member is doing what his or her constituents want that person to do and whether that record stacks up to the will of the constituents. So there’s always room for us, certainly in the House, to tell the story of what we’re about.”

Cantor also said that while Congress’ approval ratings are low at this point, once the GOP makes the case to the public that its Members remain “outsiders,” those numbers will rise.

“Our Conference represents something outside the establishment,” Cantor said. “I think that much of why we see what we’re seeing in the polls is that the public hasn’t yet focused in on the fact that this majority is trying to effect reform and real change. And it’s not business as usual, go along to get along, which is why we’ve had so much tension in Washington.”

The GOP operative said a similar situation exists in the Senate.

“In key Senate races, regardless of who the nominee is, in many of these key states, the goal will be to tie the Democrats to the president. … So I don’t know who’s at the top of the ticket affects that,” the GOP operative said.

Still, Republicans said they realize coordination with the presidential nominee will be critical to the GOP’s electoral success at all levels this year.

“That was [GOP strategist Ed] Gillespie’s message to us” at the GOP’s retreat in Baltimore this weekend, Cantor said.

“He really said: ‘Look … there should be some coordination. There should be a lot of communication.’ And that really goes to my reason why I would look for this thing to hopefully be over soon.”

Although Republicans declined to comment specifically on the strengths or weaknesses of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the nominee, there is clearly concern with a potential Gingrich run.

No Republican in the Senate has endorsed Gingrich at this point, though 11 House Members have backed him, compared with Romney’s 13 endorsements from Senators and 59 endorsements from House Members.

Although Gingrich and his backers insist that is simply a result of his anti-establishment credentials, the reality is that the ranks of those refusing to endorse him include numerous tea party favorites in both chambers.

Some Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, worry that Gingrich as the nominee could jeopardize their House majority and cost them a chance win back control of the Senate.

Gingrich’s policy proposals might not scare off independent and swing voters. But the former Speaker is an entrenched Washington figure with high unfavorability ratings — above 50 percent in recent polling — and Republicans on Capitol Hill worry that those attributes and a checkered history in leadership could boost Obama and Democrats in the fall.

“I’ve said all along that I think Romney is our best general election candidate,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who is backing the former governor and campaigned for him in Iowa. “I think he puts us in the best position to win the election and beat the president.”

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