Sessions May Face Scrutiny

Posted October 30, 2009 at 6:36pm

Correction Appended

Ten months after House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) ousted Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.) as the party’s top campaign strategist, House Republicans continue to be plagued by funding woes and ugly intraparty skirmishes that have hurt their ability to win elections over the past several years.

Cole was criticized for sluggish fundraising and a string of 2008 special election losses in Mississippi, Illinois and Louisiana during his tenure as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman — criticisms that Boehner leveraged to eventually unseat him in favor of Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas).

“We cannot allow our candidates or the NRCC to be outraised as badly as we were last cycle if we are to regain the House,— Sessions wrote to Members in a November 2008 letter during his campaign for NRCC chairman.

But two messy special elections later, the NRCC lags behind its Democratic counterpart as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee in fundraising — and the committee is more than $10 million behind where the Cole-led NRCC was at this point in the 2007 election cycle.

This disparity has caused several Members, staff and GOP political operatives to question whether Sessions has delivered on his commitment to excel where he thought Cole had failed.

“They have the same fundamental problems that they have had for years and years and years,— said one GOP source with knowledge about the inner workings of the NRCC.

The source worried that by “pouring money into the special elections— the party ultimately loses, the NRCC is depleting funds vital later in the cycle.

“We need to be able to play when it really matters,— the GOP source said.

And while all of the campaign committees have taken a financial hit in the economic environment, Republicans are raising far less money this cycle from big-dollar donors, or donors who gave more than $200, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

At the end of September 2007, the NRCC had raised $16.6 million from big donors and $10.5 million from small donors — donors who gave less than $200. So far this cycle, the NRCC has raised $8.8 million from big donors and $8.6 million from small donors.

Despite the lower fundraising numbers and the GOP’s special-election loss earlier this year in New York’s 20th district — not to mention the chaotic race in New York’s 23rd district that will be decided Tuesday — Sessions has emerged largely unscathed from blame.

A GOP source close to the NRCC said Sessions’ close ties with Boehner has kept him from the withering criticism that Cole received when he led the committee.

Cole and Boehner clashed continually over the course of his tenure at the NRCC. The relationship eroded further after the string of special election losses that flipped all three GOP-held seats to Democratic control.

After a second round of devastating GOP losses in the 2008 elections following the party’s loss of the majority in 2006, Boehner endorsed Sessions over Cole in the race for NRCC chairman. Cole later dropped out of the running for the post.

“Boehner and his team didn’t like Tom from the get-go,— said one GOP source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The NRCC “had $20 million of debt [when Cole arrived]. … There was a lot of cleanup that Tom had to do.—

Several GOP sources familiar with the NRCC’s fundraising attributed some of the shortfall this cycle to the committee’s decision to return to a reliance on expensive telemarketing to prospect for small donors instead of using cheaper direct mail. Fundraising reports show that the committee has spent $3.9 million so far this cycle on phone-banking services.

During Cole’s tenure, the NRCC sought to move away from the expensive phone-banking method of fundraising, which yielded limited net returns because of its high cost.

A GOP aide noted that while receipts might be down from two years ago, the NRCC is in a much better position when it comes to cash on hand. The NRCC ended September with $4.3 million in the bank compared with $1.6 million in 2007.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), finance chairman of the NRCC, said the distinction is important since the committee can only spend the money it nets rather than what is reflected in total receipts.

“The main point is you can’t spend gross, you can spend net,— he said. “We are a little better off— this cycle.

Scott Cottington, a Republican consultant, said part of the dip in fundraising from previous cycles can be attributed to the fact that Republicans no longer have control of the White House or Congress.

“Anytime you have a new chairman at a committee, it takes a while for the donors to get to know who that chairman is and how he operates and to buy into the mission,— Cottington explained.

The GOP aide said that under Sessions, the committee has added 80,000 new donors through the mail and phones.

Several House Republicans said that like the fundraising environment, Sessions had little control initially over the selection of the party’s nominee in the New York special election, where Republican voters have since revolted against GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava and instead moved toward the conservative third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman.

House lawmakers blamed local party leaders in the district for the chaos in the race and were quick to point out that the party system in New York tied the hands of the NRCC and the House Republican leadership.

“You talk New York 23 — they were given a bad hand,— a GOP leadership aide said. “There’s not much they would do. … The Republican nominee was picked by the local leaders.—

One GOP aide familiar with the internal operations at the NRCC said that Sessions encouraged the county chairs to open up the process in June to avoid some of the problems that occurred during the special election in the 20th district — where the selection process took place largely behind closed doors.

Sessions also circulated a district study that showed the electability of a number of potential candidates and encouraged the county chairmen to wait until the Democratic nominee was selected before choosing their candidate.

The aide said that despite Sessions’ appeals, the local party chairmen made their choice without the knowledge of the NRCC.

But there are also those who are critical of the NRCC’s handling of the race after being handed Scozzafava as their nominee.

One political operative with knowledge of area politics said some observers believe the NRCC was tentative in engaging in the early stages of the race, noting that in the Syracuse portion of the district the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee worked early to define Scozzafava before she could define herself. The operative said Democrats also were effective in using the Syracuse market to suppress Hoffman. The Syracuse area is where many of the district’s conservative Republicans are concentrated.

“It appeared that the NRCC didn’t quite see that the entrance into the race was in Syracuse,— the operative said.

Still, it doesn’t appear that there is growing dissatisfaction with Sessions’ leadership of the committee.

“By far, Sessions is the most involved and has the best organization, the best staff, the best Members involved over at the committee,— the House leadership aide said. “I’m very positive as far as the work they’ve done. I’m not saying they’re perfect. There’s New York 20 and 23.—

The aide added that it’s unlikely Sessions and his staff will be judged by the special elections.

“The ultimate success of the committee is not based on the special elections, it’s based on what happens next November,— the aide said.

Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.

Correction: Nov. 2, 2009

The article incorrectly stated that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has seen a similar decline to the National Republican Congressional Committee in big-dollar donors compared to this point in the 2008 cycle. In fact, the NRSC has raised almost the same amount from itemized contributions at the end of September 2007 compared to the end of September 2009.