For Cantor, Message Is the Medium

Posted January 9, 2009 at 6:09pm

Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and his chief deputy, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), are retooling the House GOP’s once-formidable legislative arm-twisting operation into one focused on helping the party bolster vulnerable incumbents and unify its message.

Aggressively collecting votes from the rank and file — the hallmark of whips such as Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and his predecessor, Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — will take a back seat for the House GOP as it attempts to dig its way out of minority status.

The first step: McCarthy and Cantor intend to raise $1 million for the whip team to ensure that the 50-plus members are less worried about re-election and can focus on helping the two young guns expand the Republican Conference.

“We will help raise money to go toward the whip members to make sure they’re all strong as well,” McCarthy said in an interview on Friday. “As the whip team gets tighter, there are so many things we will be doing together. There are different angles that we are going to have to work smarter and harder in being with fewer numbers.”

The infusion of cash is only one of a host of changes — both political and policy oriented — that Cantor and McCarthy are implementing as part of their multifaceted plan to revamp the Republican whip operation.

Some of the changes are structural, such as holding whip meetings on Mondays so Members have a firm grasp of the Conference’s message at the beginning of the week. More substantive changes include Member and staff policy training so that the whip team can present a unified front to the rest of the Conference.

Thanks to the new vote deficit in the House and the lack of a Republican president, Cantor will not face the same pressure that Blunt felt during his tenure as the No. 2 Republican.

“When one is in a 256-178 minority, it is rare that you’ll do a lot of vote corralling,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a whip team member.

Without motions to recommit, vote counting is pretty simple, said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a member of the whip team, referring to a rules change passed last week by the House that limits the minority’s ability to block legislation.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said the key to functioning with smaller numbers is creating an echo chamber through tight, effective messaging.

“Now you’ve got a huge deficit in votes, and we all know that while the Democrats can shut down votes and block amendments the one thing they can’t do is mess with the First Amendment — and in the end the First Amendment has always been the most powerful tool of the minority,” Kirk said. “But it requires … finding a tight message that can be repeated in multiple forms and multiple voices and that becomes a key thing for the whip operation to do.”

Because, he added, on the House floor “the victories will be few and far between.”

There will also be a stronger emphasis on fundraising and politics. Under Cantor, political discussions will occur monthly — the whip team would meet sporadically in the 110th Congress to discuss polling and strategy at the Capitol Hill Club.

“Seeing that there is going to be a considerable amount of effort recruiting candidates and being more political … I think having an off-site location where we can focus on polling and candidates is going to be beneficial,” Nunes said.

Members are also required to fulfill their fundraising obligations to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“They want us to lead by example,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who is serving his first term on the whip team.

“In the end, [Cantor] was right to say the principal job of leadership is to make a majority. And you do that by being a better representative of the American people, but also it comes down to raw politics, recruiting candidates, resources to campaigns etc., etc.,” Kirk said. “The whip team under Roy was very much a creature of running a majority, and that is not the mission of this team.”

“We are going to … grow tighter as a family; the way you get to the majority is that we are all united,” McCarthy said. “One thing is we are going to have to unite the Conference and ideas and others to move us forward — I think the whip team will be the core of doing that.”