Despite two consecutive special election defeats and several surprise retirements in competitive districts, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) continues to enjoy generally positive reviews about his tenure — if also high expectations for the fall election.
Reynolds has garnered goodwill within the House Republican caucus by including as many lawmakers as possible in the committee’s efforts, GOP lawmakers, aides, party strategists and consultants said this week. In addition, there is widespread recognition that the two special election losses were due in part to circumstances beyond Reynolds’ control.
Campaign committee heads, unlike Members in most other leadership positions, are measured by a concrete set of results. Yet Republicans say that the barometer for Reynolds’ performance won’t simply be the number of House GOPers who win on Election Day.
Fairly or not, Reynolds’ colleagues will gauge whether the final results exceed the expectations Republicans set for themselves early in the cycle. And Reynolds’ own political future hangs in the balance.
“They’ll judge it based on what happens in November, not on a couple of specials,” said Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), who chaired the NRCC the last two cycles.
While Reynolds’ two predecessors atop the NRCC, Davis and Rep. John Linder (Ga.), had no serious aspirations to move up in leadership, the New Yorker is thought to have more ambitious goals.
Reynolds is one of a handful of GOP lawmakers — a group that includes Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) — who could make a play to ascend the ladder whenever Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) decides to retire.
Reynolds himself has publicly outlined modest goals for this cycle, vowing only to work to maintain the GOP’s current majority.
“My goal is to bring back 228 House Republicans this year,” he told reporters last week.
Setting expectations can be perilous for an NRCC chairman, since electoral results can be influenced by circumstances beyond the chairman’s control.
“Nobody in this business wants to set targets, because things can change so fast,” said Linder.
But while Reynolds has reason to be cautious in his stated predictions, most other Republicans were under no such constraints. And at least until the last few months — as problems in Iraq caused anxiety among many voters — most Republicans were bullish on the party’s chances in November.
Davis said “there’s an expectation of a pickup” of seats this cycle. Members “have strong confidence” in Reynolds’ ability to engineer gains, he added.
A senior GOP leadership aide agreed that “the expectation is we’ll do pretty well” in November.
The biggest cause for early Republican optimism has been the redistricting process in Texas, which could give the GOP an additional four to seven seats. Another has been the party’s continued financial advantage over Democrats.
“Even without Texas, Reynolds will be fine,” predicted a top-level Republican strategist.
When he took the reins of the NRCC in late 2002, Reynolds assumed control of an organization that had seen its budget halved by the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.
Yet under Reynolds’ leadership, the NRCC has managed to raise more than $100 million, with $18.1 million on hand as of April 30. That compares to $11.1 million for its rival, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“The fundraising he’s doing is remarkable,” Linder said.
More recently, though, the special-election losses in Kentucky and South Dakota, coupled with the retirements of Reps. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) and Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and the uncertain situation in Iraq, have diminished optimism somewhat.
Privately, a Republican lawmaker who is close to the leadership said, “I think there’s a very high level of concern within the Conference,” adding that “it’s natural for a [party] that’s used to winning” to be nervous.
The Member said while most lawmakers will reserve judgement on Reynolds’ performance for now, they understand that the GOP’s biggest success this cycle — Texas redistricting — was not spearheaded by the NRCC.
“The Conference recognizes that any of these victories are Tom DeLay’s victories,” said the lawmaker, referring to DeLay’s relentless effort to convince Texas legislators to redraw lines.
Yet while some Republicans have privately criticized Reynolds and expressed concern about the party’s election prospects, most opinion within the GOP remains favorable to him.
“I have not heard one Member or a group of Members say, ‘This is lousy — bring back Tom Davis,’” said one well-connected Republican strategist.
Reynolds said last week that he was dealt “two tough hands” in the special elections. Republican pollster Glen Bolger characterized it as “the opposite of an inside straight.”
In the mid-February special election in Kentucky’s 6th district, Democrats recruited former state Attorney General Ben Chandler, who had just come off a 2003 gubernatorial defeat, as their candidate.
Boosted by his huge name identification edge and an abbreviated campaign, Chandler won a 55 percent to 43 percent victory over state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R).
In that race, Reynolds largely deferred strategic decisions to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), according to knowledgeable aides.
In the June 1 South Dakota special election, Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D) entered the race with very high name identification and favorability scores due to her unsuccessful 2002 race against then Rep. Bill Janklow (R).
State Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) began the contest down 30 points to Herseth but lost by less than 3,000 votes.
“With the two Democratic candidates that were running, it is hard to blame Reynolds and Members don’t,” Bolger said.
In the South Dakota case, Reynolds claimed a measure of success despite the loss. “How do I say I exceeded most people’s expectations in this race?” Reynolds said. “There wasn’t much from the media that said we were going to be within one point.”
Justifications or not, Reynolds still holds a dubious distinction: He’s the first NRCC chairman in more than three decades to lose two Republican-held seats in special elections during the same cycle.
In recent history, the Democrats lost two of their own seats in special elections in 1994. The defeats signaled the 52-seat Republican wave election that followed in the fall.
Buoyed by the South Dakota results, Democrats have begun to draw similarities between the two election cycles. The party is even expected to unveil a Democratic version of the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract for America” this fall.
But Republican observers reject that comparison, arguing that the two sets of special election victories are not comparable.
In 1994, the Republicans seized seats in Kentucky and Oklahoma that had been consecutively held by Democrats for 20 and 40 years, respectively. But this year’s Democratic wins came in seats they had held within the last decade.
Even if Reynolds couldn’t control the results of the special elections, and if he can’t prevent Members who strongly wish to retire from doing so, he can remind them of what’s at stake.
“The message we’re trying to convey to Members is this majority is held together by one seat at a time,” Reynolds said.