In Defeat, GOP Takes Measure

Posted May 14, 2008 at 11:00am

House Republicans spent much of Wednesday assessing the fallout from their third special election loss this year — and scrambling to figure out what changes to make to avoid an all-out disaster in November.

Also up for debate was how much responsibility for the losses in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi should be shouldered by GOP leadership and by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Earlier in the day, Republicans discussed possible top changes at the NRCC. But by late afternoon Wednesday, there appeared to be a consensus among leaders that the GOP team needed to pull together and not assign individual blame.

At a solemn GOP Conference meeting Wednesday morning, Members received yet another bleak assessment of the political environment and health of the GOP brand from retiring Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), a former NRCC chairman and a respected, blunt strategist.

In a 20-page memo distributed to Members, Davis wrote that without a meaningful change of course, Republicans stand to lose another 20 House seats and up to six Senate seats.

“The political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than the fall of 2006 when we lost thirty seats (and our majority) and came within a couple percentage points of losing another fifteen seats,” Davis wrote.

He added that the GOP’s steep climb is “exacerbated by the fact that little has changed to improve our image over the past eighteen months and that voters looking for change are unlikely to embrace the same-old, same-old, which was overwhelmingly rejected in the last midterms.”

Meanwhile, in an interview with Roll Call, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said he is also pessimistic about the party’s prospects.

He said Republicans have been too focused on playing the blame game instead of putting together a well-funded, coordinated campaign that would deliver the aggressive agenda that voters hunger for.

“Everybody wants to point fingers, and nobody has any ideas for how we counter what’s happening out there in the real world,” DeLay said.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) acknowledged that changes might be necessary at the NRCC in light of Tuesday’s loss in Mississippi and the current political environment, as talk swirled of an attempt to replace NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.).

“Clearly, I think we’ve got to do a better job,” he told reporters, adding that he had “no preconceived ideas about what those changes ought to be.”

But after a morning leadership meeting, Republican leaders opted to stick together.

“Breaking up the team is not the answer. We need to go forward,” Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said at a meeting with reporters later in the day. “The sense of the group was we need to pull together as a team.”

Boehner has clashed with Cole over the committee’s strategy and administration.

On a conference call with reporters, the NRCC chairman made the case for how the special election losses are the result of broader problems that the party faces — ones that won’t be solved by minor changes such as tweaking staff.

Without naming Boehner or his fellow GOP leaders, Cole made several references to Republicans’ need to look in the mirror, repair the party’s tarnished brand and do a better job of communicating their message to voters. Boehner has been leading a months-long party rebranding effort, which is being unveiled this week.

“I think obviously when you lose three of these in a row you have to go beyond campaign tactics,” Cole said, adding that it brings up the question: “Is there something wrong with your product?”

He said the party has lost the voters’ confidence that it will follow through on its promises.

The GOP’s loss in Mississippi on Tuesday underscored for many Republicans that the party’s old playbook — one that relies heavily on branding Democrats as liberal tax-raisers, rallying around social issues such as abortion and guns, and using the president and vice president as campaign surrogates — isn’t working any more.

“The playbook hasn’t worked in my district ever,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has been pushing his party to adopt an agenda geared toward more moderate suburban voters for the past three years. “The politics of the 1980s when that playbook was written is out of date.”

Cantor acknowledged that efforts to brand a candidate as “too liberal” or “too out of sync” won’t cut it with voters.

“What does work, though, is a realization that the paradigm has been shifted,” Cantor said. “This country is tired of excuses and doesn’t want to hear about ‘too liberal’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’ What they want to hear is solutions.”

To that end, Republicans began to unveil a portion of their agenda Wednesday, and Kirk said he felt somewhat vindicated by the attention now being paid to suburban issues.

“This agenda unifies all of us,” Kirk said. “When you see a defeat like this, I fully embrace that this is an opportunity for reform.”

GOP Conference Vice Chairwoman Kay Granger (Texas) led Wednesday’s rollout of a family-friendly agenda, while Republicans will lay out a broader set of principles that are the product of the Boehner-led effort during a special Conference meeting this morning.

Democrats, meanwhile, took a victory lap Wednesday, celebrating their win in Mississippi and looking forward to their prospects in November.

“The Republicans are running out of excuses,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said. “I think after yesterday, Republicans have to look in the mirror, and I think what they’ll see is they’ve become the party of no, … veto and status quo.”

Van Hollen also took aim at Vice President Cheney’s unsuccessful trip to Mississippi.

“Dick Cheney was as dangerous to Republican candidates as to his hunting partners,” Van Hollen quipped.

In Mississippi and in a recent special election in Louisiana, Democrats recruited culturally conservative candidates who fit the Republican-held districts.

“Both candidates ran on what Republicans are for,” Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said. “We know now that the message works, we’ve just got to be sure that they nationally connect the message with the Republican Party rather than the other party.”

Other Republicans agreed that the party should avoid a knee-jerk response that would amount to rhetorical gimmickry. Instead, they said, GOPers should forge ahead with a substantive agenda.

“People aren’t looking for a sales pitch or a messaging plan,” Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) said. “Most of these new ideas are political. People have seen us waiver and flip-flop and act like Democrats, and they’re equally disgusted with both parties.”

Wamp said it’s possibly too late in the cycle for the party to reinvent itself with new leaders or new priorities. Besides, he said, “this is the most functional, cooperative, effective leadership team I’ve seen in 14 years in the House.”

Many lawmakers also acknowledged that leadership is aware of the increased anxiousness among the rank-and-file and the need for the party to unify behind a message.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), Republican Policy Committee chairman, said GOPers need to “think deeper and work harder.”

“It’s not brain surgery,” he said. McCotter said that while his colleagues may be stunned by the string of special election losses, he believed the Conference was on the right track with the legislative package that it is rolling out.

“I never advocate panic,” he said. “I’m from the Great Lakes, and reading about shipwrecks, the people who survive never panic.”

Other Republicans said this wasn’t the time for Republicans to remain calm.

“We need a victory. We’ve got to do something dramatic,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said. “People are tired of talk and that’s all we’re doing.”

Westmoreland reiterated his belief that the party’s problems are tied largely to their loss of credibility among their base and the responsibility for the special election losses shouldn’t be entirely pinned on Cole.

“I think that people feel like it’s more leadership than it is Tom Cole,” Westmoreland said. “He did all he could do with the tools we’ve given him to work with. We haven’t given him much.”

DeLay stopped short of calling out current leadership for being slow to develop a coordinated message and election effort.

“I’m not criticizing them, but the Democrats have been running for the 2008 Congressional elections since the day after the 2006 elections, and if we’re just now trying to put together a coordinated campaign effort for 2008, it may already be too late,” he said.

DeLay said he isn’t optimistic about where things are headed in November for the GOP unless drastic moves are made. He noted Republicans’ fundraising troubles and also was critical of the GOP’s heavy spending on TV ads in the special elections, a strategy that he said won’t work anymore.

“You’ve got to ID your vote and turn out your vote,” he said. “You’ve got to hit bottom before you start looking up.”

Davis also took issue with some of the NRCC’s spending decisions in his memo.

“Throwing a half million dollars at LA-06 was not smart, in retrospect,” Davis wrote. “A more thorough discussion on smart spending is in order, but good polling and targeting is critical. … Cookie cutter approaches, along with obsolete messages, are also wasteful.”

The three special election losses are also troubling to Republicans on at least two other morale-related levels: fundraising and retirements.

The filing deadline for Congressional candidates has yet to pass in 17 states, and the Nevada filing deadline is today. If the gloomy outlook for Republicans in November doesn’t change, even more Republicans could make last-minute decisions to leave Congress. The GOP is already defending more than two dozen open seats in November.

Cantor acknowledged that the three losses could further dampen GOP fundraising. The NRCC faces a massive cash-on-hand deficit compared to House Democrats, and party leaders are trying to rake in cash for the joint House/Senate president’s dinner next month.

“There’s no question when you lose, it doesn’t help fundraising,” Cantor said.

Tory Newmyer and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.