Boehner’s Stamp Affixed on NRCC

Posted July 3, 2008 at 4:35pm

Clarifiction Appended

As Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) seeks to increase his influence at the National Republican Congressional Committee, he has tapped veteran GOP strategist John Hishta to help oversee the House GOP’s independent expenditure effort.

The move is the latest in a series that gives Boehner a growing ownership stake in the NRCC’s election strategy, setting him up to take an even larger share of the credit or the blame — depending on the size of the expected GOP losses in November.

Boehner has clashed with NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) for much of this cycle over strategy and fundraising. He has taken several steps in the past few months to exert his influence at the committee, moves that were viewed collectively as an attempt to undercut Cole’s control.

Hishta, a former NRCC executive director and confidant of Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), is expected to assume his new role this week.

He will join the independent expenditure team that includes GOP consultant Clinton Key, a fellow Oklahoman close to Cole, and NRCC Deputy Executive Director Evan Kozlow. Key will continue to serve as director of the IE, while Hishta will be a paid consultant on the effort.

“John Hishta is a well-respected Republican consultant, and his involvement in the IE is welcomed,” NRCC Communications Director Karen Hanretty said.

By installing someone of his choosing at the IE, Boehner also assumes a measure of influence over the NRCC’s purse strings.

Under federal law, party committees face restrictions on coordinating spending directly with candidates. Because of those limits, the committees spend the bulk of their money to help individual candidates through IE campaigns, which usually take the form of massive television ad buys.

Through the IEs, the parties can spend an unlimited amount of money, though they can have no knowledge about the campaign strategy of the candidates who benefit from the ads.

The NRCC has struggled financially this cycle, beginning last year swimming in debt that has now been paid off and then uncovering an embezzlement scandal allegedly orchestrated by a former treasurer.

At the end of May, the committee showed $6.65 million in cash on hand. Virtually all available cash is expected to fund TV ads, direct mail and polling paid for by the IE.

Hishta is a partner at Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, an Alexandria-based GOP media firm. He joined the group in the fall of last year after a stint at Mercury Public Affairs.

He is a former chief of staff to Davis and served as executive director at the NRCC during Davis’ tenure as chairman, from 2001 through 2002.

During the 2000 cycle, Hishta directed the NRCC’s $45 million national issue advertising campaign that targeted the most competitive House races.

He also managed Sen. John Warner’s (R-Va.) 1996 re-election bid against wealthy businessman Mark Warner (D), the now- former governor who is running for an open Senate seat this year.

“Boehner recognized that they needed to bring in someone who had some [IE] experience,” said one GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The aide also acknowledged Boehner’s difficult situation as he shoulders more responsibility for the party’s fate in the elections. Given the current political environment, Republicans are expected to end up with a net loss of anywhere from eight seats, on the conservative end, to 20 or more seats, if a Democratic wave develops similar to the one that swept the GOP from power in 2006.

“At the end of the day, Boehner is in a no- win situation because he has to show that he’s doing something,” the GOP aide said. “But at the same time, by cutting off Cole, he’s taking more responsibility for what happens in November.”

Hishta’s hiring is only the latest move by Boehner to exert his influence over the committee.

Boehner selected Davis, a former two-term NRCC chairman, to lead a working group of Members to oversee strategy after the GOP lost three special elections earlier this year. The Minority Leader was also responsible for bringing GOP consultant Ed Brookover in to aid the NRCC and has been involved in the coordination of fundraising efforts between the House GOP, the national party and state parties.

Meanwhile, Republicans recently completed a Boehner-requested audit of the NRCC’s efforts in the three special election losses earlier this year — races that cost the party millions.

Led by Davis and Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio) and conducted largely by consultants, the audit lacked any earth-shattering revelations or recommendations. Hishta was involved in conducting the audit.

The conclusion of the 15-page audit was that traditional Republican messages did not work and that, in each case, Democrats ran candidates that reflected their districts.

The audit concluded there wasn’t much that could have changed the outcome of the three races.

“Winning any of these special elections would have been extremely difficult given the nature of the political environment and the candidates involved,” the audit said.

The document also outlined recurring themes, such as the lack of IE polling in each race to determine the degree of interest from voters in order to produce an effective turnout model.

The audit also concluded that nationalizing the elections as a choice between a traditional Republican and a traditional Democrat in the current political environment does not work.

Also problematic was that in Louisiana’s 6th district and Mississippi’s 1st district, President Bush’s approval rating was never tested.

The audit’s harshest assessment was reserved for the GOP nominee in the Louisiana race, former state legislator Woody Jenkins.

“Jenkins was an unacceptable candidate to a significant portion of the electorate from the beginning,” the audit found, adding that his “campaign essentially did not exist” as it only ran 680 points on TV.

In Mississippi, the audit found that opposition research was not fully explored. For instance, the NRCC attacked Democratic nominee Travis Childers for not caring about the welfare of seniors at a nursing home that he has financial ties to, without the knowledge that Childers’ mother lived in the nursing home.

Among the audit’s recommendations going forward is for candidates to “work to develop an issues matrix that is different than in years past and also shows a deep empathy towards the voters.”

Correction: July 8, 2008

The article mischaracterized Evan Kozlow’s role at the National Republican Congressional Committee. While Kozlow still holds the title of NRCC deputy executive director, he works full time for the committee’s independent expenditure program.