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Legislative Duties Weigh Heavily on GOP House Hopefuls

While Republicans on Capitol Hill grapple with the contradiction of being the anti-big government party that controls both chambers of Congress, some GOP state legislators who want to move to the U.S. House are finding that power and legislative responsibility can be liabilities. [IMGCAP(1)]

At least three influential Republican state Senators who are running for Congress — Nebraska’s Curt Bromm, New York’s Randy Kuhl and Oregon’s Jackie Winters — find themselves in primaries against less credentialed opponents. Two of the “other” candidates have held lesser offices (in the state Assembly and on a school board), while the third has never held elective office.

In each case, the powerful legislator is vulnerable on tax and spending issues, having supported budgets that their more conservative primary opponents argue (or will argue shortly) are too large or raise taxes.

Bromm hopes to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), but his leadership position may turn out to be a drawback rather than an advantage.

First elected to Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature in 1992, Bromm was chosen Speaker of the body in 2002. He has won the backing for his Congressional race of both former Gov. Charles Thone and Bereuter, who has penned a letter endorsing the state Senator and urging Republicans to volunteer for and contribute to Bromm’s campaign.

But Bromm’s leadership position forced him and other state leaders to address a $700 million shortfall in the state budget by cutting spending and by raising an additional $300 million in revenue through new taxes. And while the state Senate leader describes himself as pro-life, his refusal to support a bill stopping medical research on fetal tissue at the state university isn’t sitting well with anti-abortion groups.

Not all Republicans are pleased with Bromm’s actions. Anti-tax Republicans Jeff Fortenberry and Greg Ruehle are vying with him for the Congressional nomination, but Ruehle, who heads the Nebraska Cattlemen, is generally regarded as Bromm’s major competition.

The announcement last week by Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) that he will not seek re-election sets up another GOP primary that puts a legislative leader in the hot seat.

Kuhl, who chairs the state Senate Transportation Committee, is widely seen as the early favorite for the Republican nomination and the right to replace Houghton. As a member of his party’s majority in the state Senate, he has been counted on by the chamber’s leadership to support compromise packages that could also pass the Democratic-controlled state Assembly.

Kuhl’s opposition currently comes from two quarters: Monroe County legislator Mark Assini, a conservative who had already begun his bid to challenge Houghton before the Congressman announced his retirement, and Brian Kolb, a member of the Assembly.

Kolb appears likely to emerge as Kuhl’s main adversary, and the Assemblyman’s votes against the 2003 legislative budget — and the tax hike it included — allow him to present himself as a purer conservative than Kuhl. He knows that, as a member of the Assembly’s minority, he can take a principled position against taxes and bear no responsibility regardless of whether a legislative compromise is passed.

Finally, in Oregon’s 5th district, Winters faces a primary test against Jim Zupancic, a businessman who lost his bid for the state Legislature less than two years ago.

After serving two terms in the state House of Representatives, Winters won a state Senate seat in 2002. The legislator chairs the Joint Ways and Means subcommittee on human services, and she claims credit for playing a major role in the passage of the state’s 2003-05 budget.

But in an effort to close a large budget shortfall, Winters, who would become the first African-American Republican woman in Congress if elected, supported an $800 million tax increase that has become fodder for her critics.

Zupancic has already trained his fire on that vote in a new TV spot that started running last week.

“Jackie Winters votes repeatedly for liberal tax increases. Higher taxes on working families, small business, seniors. And the largest tax increase in Oregon history,” proclaims the ad.

Winters and Bromm both argue that they did the fiscally responsible thing in supporting proposals to raise “revenue” (read taxes) to enact a fiscally responsible budget. But, again in each case, they have given their Congressional opponents a potentially effective issue to use in the House primary.

Two questions swirl around all three races. First, will the Club for Growth enter the contests on the side of the anti-tax insurgents? So far, the group hasn’t, but I’m willing to bet it will in a couple of the races.

And second, will the primaries undermine GOP chances of holding either of the open seats or make it impossible for the Republican nominee to knock off Oregon Rep. Darlene Hooley (D)?

No matter what happens, the three cases prove that even in Republican primaries, it’s easier to run as an outsider.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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