NRCC’s Tough Road

Weak Incumbents May Be Left Behind

Posted June 16, 2008 at 6:32pm

Outgunned financially and outmanned politically, the National Republican Congressional Committee is gearing up for a fall campaign of limited choices and hard decisions.

NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) acknowledged in an interview Friday that a lack of campaign cash means some House GOP incumbents will have to wage their re-elections without financial assistance from his committee. As of April 30, the NRCC had just $6.7 million in the bank; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reported $45.2 million. The DCCC estimates that anywhere from 70 to 80 seats are currently “in play.”

With 27 open seats to defend and several incumbents threatened by Democratic challengers, Cole said the NRCC would divide its paltry war chest among incumbents, GOP-held open seats and Republican challengers running against targeted Democrats. He said the surest way for a candidate to get financial help from the NRCC was to prove that the money would be well-spent.

“Candidates will have to demonstrate that they’re worth the investment,” Cole said. “We will have to be pretty brutal, and we will be.”

Where the NRCC competes will depend significantly on how the White House contest shakes out, where the media are cheap to buy and where polling shows the Republican candidate is in a position to win.

Although the DCCC bought advertising early in the previous cycle to capitalize on the lower rates charged for an advance buy, Cole said he expects the NRCC is likely to spend its independent expenditure advertising dollars late. He said it’s important not to get “baited” by the DCCC into spending early and in the wrong districts, and said investing down the stretch of the campaign, when the outcome of races might be more certain, will allow the NRCC to be more effective with its investment.

“It’s probably a more complex battlefield than either side has played on in the past, and there’s probably not a lot of room for error on our side,” Cole said. “We have to make our judgments and live with them.”

Cole signaled that the NRCC could play in states where Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, exhibited weakness in his primary battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.); where the Republican presidential nominee generally performs well historically; and where the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), runs strongly in particular.

Considering those factors, Cole said the NRCC could be active in Kansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and states where the political atmospherics are similar and the media are reasonably priced.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans are targeting Democratic incumbents — two of them freshmen — in the 4th, 8th, 10th and 11th districts. In Kentucky, Republicans are hoping to defend retiring Rep. Ron Lewis’ (R) seat in the 2nd district and oust freshman Rep. John Yarmuth (D) in the 3rd.

In Kansas, television and radio advertising is inexpensive, and Cole is confident about the strength of the GOP nominees who are set to emerge from the Aug. 5 primaries in the 2nd and 3rd districts, which are both GOP targets. Also, Cole is optimistic that having McCain and Sen. Pat Roberts (R) at the top of the ticket in the Jayhawk State could boost Republicans running for the House.

Cole declined to project how much money the NRCC would be able to spend this fall to execute its strategy.

Meanwhile, the DCCC questions Cole’s assertions.

The Democratic committee sees its incumbents and challengers as well-prepared financially and politically to counter any GOP challenge that comes their way. In fact, the DCCC believes House Republicans are so vulnerable in the coming fall campaign that it cites its biggest challenge as raising enough money so that it can afford to play in the growing list of endangered GOP-held seats.

The DCCC also argued that Obama is all strength and no weakness. The committee contends that Obama’s appeal to independent voters will aid Democratic House candidates — including in those districts where the Senator had trouble in the Democratic White House primary against Clinton.

Additionally, the DCCC predicts that Republicans will suffer both for their votes on the floor of the House during the 110th Congress and, most importantly, because the country wants to change directions from the policies of President Bush that many of them have supported.

“We’re high on our candidates because we feel like they reflect the values and priorities of their districts very well,” DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said. The Republicans’ “biggest problem is that they’re out of touch with what voters are seeking this election.”

Cole has faced a tough task this cycle in trying to pick his colleagues up off the mat following the drubbing they took in 2006. He had to pay down a nearly $20 million debt, address an embezzlement scandal and adjust to an environment where fundraising is a tougher task now that Republicans are in the minority on both sides of Capitol Hill.

But he has dealt with a barrage of criticism, including from House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), for what many in his Conference have deemed subpar fundraising and candidate-recruitment efforts, as well as strategic missteps. The naysayers became particularly loud in the aftermath of three special election losses this year that occurred in historically Republican and conservative-leaning seats.

One Republican strategist who advises House candidates said the NRCC’s lack of available cash to spend on races would seriously hamper whatever strategy Cole wants to employ. This strategist advised Cole to focus on protecting incumbents, saying the committee will get more for its investment in those races because Members win re-election roughly 98 percent of the time.

Another Republican operative recommended that Cole signal very early where the NRCC intends to play, so that third-party organizations that support GOP candidates can make strategic decisions about where they might help the most this fall. According to this operative, the DCCC was adept at doing just that in the runup to the 2006 elections.

Martin Baker, a former NRCC aide and now a partner in the Republican direct-mail firm Politicalink, suggested that Cole sit down with every potentially vulnerable incumbent in the next few months and give them an honest assessment of just how much help they’re likely to get from the committee in the fall.

Baker said Cole could do this by pulling public records of how much independent expenditure money was spent on an incumbent’s race last cycle as a percentage of what the NRCC’s cash on hand was then, and apply the same percentage to what the cash on hand is likely to be this fall.

Baker said GOP Members are used to getting media help from the NRCC, as the committee was flush with cash during the past six cycles. Baker said Cole needs to give them time to prepare, and said talking with them privately is a better way of handling the situation than sending signals through the press.

Although the NRCC will probably continue to be financially limited, Cole said there are still areas where the NRCC can be just as effective as in previous years.

Cole said his opposition research department is top-notch. The chairman said the NRCC can provide strategic advice enforced by that research and information gleaned from polling to improve the effectiveness of Republican House candidates.

Cole also said the NRCC can deploy surrogates to particular districts to boost Republican campaigns. Cole said there are still some districts where Bush and Vice President Cheney can deliver, and the NRCC chairman intends to try to capitalize on that. Cole also plans on dispatching Members of the House GOP leadership as needed to raise money and elevate the profile of various candidates.

Just how much Cole can do could be determined largely by how much financial support the House Republican Conference provides. Cole said some Members have already begun to deliver, but indicated that the Conference will have to do better if it wants the NRCC to be more financially engaged, and in as many races possible, as Nov. 4 approaches.

“What Members are willing to do for themselves,” Cole said, will determine how much money “we have to defend our colleagues and our open seats. That will be a tremendous challenge to our entire leadership team.”