Cole Pressured on NRCC Staff
Boehner Wants Big Changes
Frustration among House Republicans over sluggish fundraising, staff strife and other internal operations at the National Republican Congressional Committee came to a head this month — with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) demanding that changes be made.
The tension reached a boiling point in early September during a meeting between GOP leaders and NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) that resulted in Cole threatening to resign from his post.
Boehner led the meeting with Cole, according to knowledgeable sources. Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) were present as well, though one source familiar with the meeting said “they were kind of like potted plants” in describing their level of involvement.
Those sources said that during the heated meeting Boehner expressed concern about the NRCC’s financial state and effectiveness, among other things, and demanded that Cole make top-level staff changes at the committee. The frustration was specifically directed at NRCC Executive Director Pete Kirkham and Political Director Terry Carmack.
Cole, whom sources described as defensive and taken aback by the meeting and its tone, told Boehner that he would resign his post before he would fire top staff, and as of yet no such staff changes have been made.
Kirkham is Cole’s former personal office chief of staff and Carmack was chief of staff to then-Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.). Privately, concerns have circulated for some months within the Conference that perhaps both men are not the best fit for the committee leadership jobs.
“I think there’s just a general lack of confidence there,” said one Republican aide, referring to feelings among some in the GOP Conference toward the NRCC operation as a whole.
Other sources described an internal power struggle within the committee, with the mixed loyalties of some staffers the crux of the issue.
After the exchange with his fellow leaders, Cole held a staff meeting at the NRCC where he basically said if anyone working there had a problem they could leave or at the very least should come forward and express their concerns to him directly instead of having those complaints filtered through leadership.
Spokespersons for both Boehner and the NRCC sought to portray the leadership meeting as just another constructive step in reaching their shared goal of regaining the House majority in 2008.
“Our leaders have very frank and candid conversations about the strategies we’re implementing to earn back the majority in 2008, so I’d be concerned if they never had the kind of differing opinions that committed individuals encounter when they’re aggressively pursuing a common goal,” said Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy. “It happens, it’s a good thing and the leadership team is every bit as committed to helping Mr. Cole and the NRCC succeed today as it was in January.”
NRCC Communications Director Jessica Boulanger said Cole and Boehner meet regularly and that their private conversations should remain behind closed doors.
“Cole respects his input, values the give-and-take they share and is looking forward to working together to make sure John Boehner becomes the next Speaker of the House,” Boulanger said.
The NRCC, like other GOP committees this cycle, has struggled with fundraising as it has had to adjust to its new minority status, completely rebuild the committee infrastructure and contend with an angry base of small donors. The retirement of several GOP Members in swing seats has further added to the unease among leadership, K Street donors and some rank-and-file Members about whether the committee will be able to remain competitive down the stretch next fall.
The NRCC’s cash problems also have been exacerbated by the fact that the committee began the cycle with roughly $16 million in debt from the 2006 elections — a debt that was incurred not by Cole, but by his predecessor as chairman, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.).
As of the end of August, the NRCC showed just $1.6 million in the bank, although its debt has been paid down to just $3.95 million.
House Democrats, meanwhile, are flush with cash and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed more than $22 million in the bank on Aug. 31 and $3.1 million in debt.
Cole defenders say money is not the only barometer to measure the committee’s effectiveness to this point, and they point to several early recruiting successes in key districts as evidence that things are getting done.
They say Cole has surrounded himself with capable operatives and defend his micromanagement leadership style, which is more hands-on than previous NRCC chairmen because he is a former committee staffer and political operative.
Also, Cole sympathizers question why Boehner is seeking a top-level staff shakeup and not asking for changes in the NRCC’s finance staff if money is the primary gripe.
“That’s what a political director is generally judged on — an ability to recruit quality candidates — and I think by those standards the NRCC has done as good job.” said one senior GOP aide.
Ultimately, they say Cole has done the best he could with the hand he was dealt.
“Tom is out there hustling as best he can, and I think there are some people who are just impatient with what he’s done,” said one former Republican Hill aide. “It’s tough. I think there are some that have wished that the debt would go away, that the money would come in quicker. I think some of these people really don’t get it. We’re starting over again.”
The source, who had knowledge of the leadership meeting, said that while Boehner told Cole they “don’t want to keep paying the Christmas bills,” the reality of the committee’s financial situation is grim.
“Sixteen million dollars when you’ve just lost the 12-year majority sucks,” the source said. “There’s no other word.”
The large debt has hindered the committee in several ways, with several sources pointing to the fact that the NRCC’s budget constraints don’t allow for a staff large enough to solve some of the internal problems that need to be addressed.
One issue that has not eased the fundraising troubles is that the committee has had a somewhat tenuous relationship with the lobbyist community downtown.
One well-connected GOP lobbyist said frustration among the donor community on K Street had been building for several months and that the steady stream of complaints that had filtered back to Boehner and leadership was among the issues raised in the meeting with Cole.
The lobbyist also said the NRCC’s outreach has improved in the past two months.
“I think things two months ago were much worse and they’re addressing them,” the lobbyist said.
Several weeks ago, the NRCC held a briefing for about 50 lobbyists that garnered a very positive response. The lobbyist said many people in the briefing came away with the feeling that things aren’t as dire for the GOP in 2008 as some have suggested and that such outreach efforts are as much about good public relations as anything else.
“If the buzz is negative, the money dries up,” the source said. “I think they recognize that it’s important that they have a better outreach effort.”
The lobbyist also said Boehner and other party leaders also have a share in the committee’s fundraising success or failure.
“Our leadership guys need to be out there more. Boehner hasn’t been out there that much either,” the lobbyist said. “He can only fault Cole so much. It needs to be a more collective party effort.”
David M. Drucker contributed to this report.