GOP Leaders Start Choosing Sides

Posted June 25, 2008 at 5:49pm

After House Republicans lost a series of competitive special elections this spring, GOP officials laid the blame squarely at the feet of the “flawed candidates” that the party was saddled with after a few particularly bitter primary fights.

In light of those losses, party leaders decided to make a concerted effort to become more overt in helping the candidates they thought would make the best nominees in states with later primaries.

This week, the fruits of those efforts have been put on display in several battleground House races around the country.

“The leadership and members of the Republican Conference have taken a look at the campaign battlefield and are making their respective assessments in regards to helping candidates who are best prepared to win in the general election,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said on Wednesday.

In Alabama, where Republicans are facing two primary runoffs in competitive open-seat races, party brass held a fundraiser Wednesday for 2nd district candidate Jay Love (R) and donated thousands of dollars in political action committee money earlier this week to 5th district candidate Wayne Parker.

Meanwhile, in the open-seat battle in Louisiana’s 4th district, a slew of GOP officials, including House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), came out publicly Tuesday for attorney and former

Bossier Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Thompson (R) in his crowded primary race.

Multiple Republican sources on Capitol Hill said that these recent efforts are not some dramatic new course of action, but rather a more organized and focused effort that was kicked into high gear after the demoralizing trio of special election loses that the party suffered in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi this spring.

Those sources trace the renewed emphasis on late primary races to a closed-door House GOP Conference meeting that took place after Republicans suffered their third special election loss. That meeting was a wake-up call for many Republicans, sources said.

Afterward, some projects that had been in the works already — such as creating candidate funds for late primary winners — were taken up with renewed vigor by a Conference that was motivated by a realization, or perhaps fear, of just how far the party could fall in November.

But this week, some Republican Members privately wondered if the efforts taking place now are perhaps too little, too late.

The vast majority of primary races are now past the all-important recruitment stage, and Republicans are essentially playing out the hand they’ve been dealt. Some Republicans continue to question whether the NRCC’s policy of not getting involved in primary contests this cycle was the right approach to take.

NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has acknowledged that the poor quality of the GOP candidates in Illinois’ 14th district, Louisiana’s 6th district and Mississippi’s 1st district helped the Democrats flip those historically Republican seats. But he said after the Conference meeting in May that the NRCC would continue to steer clear of attempts to influence the outcome of primaries.

A month later, Cole is sticking to that promise when it comes to the official position of the NRCC, but he appears to be more liberal in handing out personal endorsements.

This week, Cole gave a $5,000 check to Parker, who is hoping to defeat Huntsville attorney Cheryl Baswell Guthrie (R) in the July runoff. He also helped throw the $500-per-head fundraiser Wednesday for Love, who is facing state Sen. Harri Anne Smith (R) in his runoff.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Doug Thornell described Cole’s efforts as “flip-flopping” on his committee’s position on primaries late in the game and said that doing so won’t make up for months of poor recruiting by the NRCC.

“The NRCC has been a day late and a dollar short this entire cycle. That’s why they are depending on 527s to prop up their flawed out-of-touch candidates,” Thornell said.

But it’s not as if Cole never personally endorsed a primary candidate until now. Among the handful of races where Cole has personally gotten involved before now is Georgia’s battleground 8th district, where he was was an early contributor to Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard (R) and in Maryland’s 1st district, when he openly supported Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) in his losing Maryland primary campaign in February.

But some insiders still describe Cole’s overall approach to primary races as very hands-off.

One Republican who has been much more hands-on is Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), who lost his bid for NRCC chairman this cycle to Cole and could be interested in seeking the post in the future.

In Texas’ 22nd district Republican primary runoff campaign, Sessions mobilized almost every member of his state’s House GOP delegation behind former Senate aide Pete Olson, who defeated former Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs in the April 8 contest after he finished behind her in the March 4 primary.

Sessions raised money for Olson and provided him organizational and strategic assistance because he and his colleagues felt that Olson was the best candidate to face Rep. Nick Lampson (D) this fall in the Republican- leaning, suburban Houston 22nd district. Sekula Gibbs was viewed as a flawed candidate ever since her brief stint in Congress in late 2006 ended in controversy.

Sessions chief of staff Guy Harrison said his boss understands the importance of assessing the abilities of candidates early and being flexible in figuring out what is required on a case-by-case basis.

“In our office, when we feel like we find a candidate that can carry the mantle better than some of the others we are going to get involved,” Harrison said.