National Republican leaders were apparently sufficiently concerned about party-switching Rep. Ralph Hall’s (R-Texas) prospects in the March 9 primary that they called one of his opponents in January and stridently urged him to get out of the race before the filing deadline, invoking the name of Karl Rove, President Bush’s political muscleman.
Then they denied doing so when contacted by a newspaper reporter.
But when confronted with tapes of the conversations, they were forced to recant.
Hall, who left the Democratic Party in December, took 78 percent of the vote last Tuesday against two little-known challengers in the 4th district east of Dallas.
According to an account in the March 4 edition of the Dallas Observer, Mike Murphy, a 30-year-old finance manager who was one of two political neophytes in the primary with Hall, received calls from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) and NRCC official Larry Telford, urging him out of the race.
While such entreaties are not all that unusual, particularly when incumbents are involved, party committees like the NRCC traditionally stay publicly neutral in primaries.
But Reynolds and Telford were less than subtle in their approach. They dropped Rove’s name and suggested that Murphy’s political future would be seriously endangered if he defied the wishes of Bush.
“Normally, with a party switcher, I’d deal with it myself or take it to the Speaker, but I took this one directly to Karl Rove because of the unique relationship the White House has with Ralph,” the Observer quoted Reynolds as telling Murphy on the tape.
Telford applied even more pressure.
“Just consider what you’re doing now,” he said. “You don’t want to have the freakin’ president of the United States mad at you for the rest of your life.”
He continued: “If you step off this cliff, gravity never goes up, it goes down.”
Contacted initially by the Dallas alternative weekly about the phone calls, NRCC Communications Director Carl Forti acknowledged that the officials called Murphy, but denied that they threatened his political future or mentioned Rove. But Murphy then provided tapes of the phone conversations to the newspaper, and Forti, contacted again, was forced to concede a “misunderstanding.”
But could Murphy, who finished with 12 percent of the vote in the three-way primary, find himself in trouble for taping phone conversations without the NRCC’s knowledge and approval?
Not in Texas.
“We’re a one-party consent state,” said Jerry Strickland, press secretary for the Texas attorney general’s office.
The origin of the phone calls then also comes into play. If Reynolds called from New York or Washington, D.C., then Murphy was not required to inform those he was speaking to that he was taping them. Only a dozen states require consent from both parties to tape a phone call.
Asked Friday whether the NRCC had anything more to say, Forti replied, “It’s done. The primary’s over.”
Murphy did not respond to a phone message left Friday at his campaign headquarters. But a message posted on the home page of his campaign Web site is headlined, “Congratulations to Mr. Hall!”
“I enjoyed this race, and I enjoyed running against you,” the statement begins. “The people of District 4 will be well represented by Mr. Hall, and I am proud to offer him my support.”
And then, just in case Rove is still paying attention, Murphy writes, “Now is the time for every conservative to get involved in the Bush campaign so we can make certain a Republican is in the White House until 2008.”