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Reynolds Dares Pelosi to Bet Job

Whoever Fails in ’04 Should Quit

In a gambit that dramatically sharpens the rhetoric in the fight for House control, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) will pledge today to resign his leadership post if his party loses the majority in November — on the condition that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) do the same if the circumstances are reversed.

Reynolds will issue the “Leadership Challenge” in response to comments made last Thursday by Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) in which they staked their “credibility” on the fact that Democrats will take back the House.

“It’s put up or shut up,” said Reynolds. “Pelosi has engaged in reckless, ridiculous rhetoric. I am getting tired of hearing her when she doesn’t believe it herself.”

Pelosi rejected the challenge before it was even formally offered, dismissing it as a campaign gimmick designed to change the subject in the face of a troubled political environment for Republicans.

“This is another sign that the Republicans are worried about the election,” said Brendan Daly, communications director for Pelosi. “Mr. Reynolds should spend his time trying to defend his lackluster candidates rather than equating his position to leader of the party.”

Reynolds’ challenge is the latest in a series of jabs that reflect a raising of the stakes for an election that is just more than 100 days away.

Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), who lost a March primary, kicked off the latest round by filing an ethics complaint against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in which he alleged that the Texas Republican illegally funneled corporate money into state legislative races.

Then, following a recent vote on the Patriot Act that was held open by Republicans for several hours, Rep. Marty Meehan (Mass.) introduced a bill designed to broaden the rights of the minority party.

Reynolds’ move to make Pelosi accountable for her claims that the House majority is within reach is Republicans’ first real counterpunch in the growing war of rhetoric.

Reynolds, who assumed his post following the 2002 election, said he simply grew sick of listening to Pelosi talk about winning back the House — a proposition he called “near impossible.”

Republicans currently hold an 11-seat majority. The party picked up six seats in 2002 — a surprising amount given that it came in the midterm election of President Bush’s first term. The GOP’s margin in this session of Congress is its widest since 1996.

The playing field for both parties appears limited to roughly 40 seats. This small number of contested seats was all but cemented after a post-2000 Census redistricting process that tended to secure incumbents of both parties.

Reynolds argued that simply by the numbers, a House majority remains well out of reach for Democrats.

If no House Democratic incumbent loses, the party must still win 17 of the 23 open-seat and competitive challenger races — roughly 71 percent of these contests — if they are to take back the House.

Much of the Democratic case that a takeover is plausible rests on a national environment that leans toward their party. This, they believe, will put a number of seemingly safe Republican incumbents in danger.

As evidence of the tilt of the playing field, Democrats point to recent “generic” Congressional ballot tests, which show them with leads ranging from 9 to 19 points. They also cite the two competitive special elections in Kentucky and South Dakota held so far in 2004.

Despite being in solidly Republican states, Democrats won both contests, marking the first time in more than three decades that they have picked up two Republican seats in special elections.

The last time either party was able to seize two seats in special elections was in 1994, when Republican victories in Kentucky and Oklahoma presaged the 52-seat gain in November.

Citing the party’s recent gains, Matsui said “the real question is would Tom Reynolds’ colleagues vote to re-elect him after he spent nearly 90 percent of their money on a failed telemarketing program that lost them two special elections.”

The NRCC had raised $113 million through June 30, compared to $55.4 million for the DCCC, but the cash-on-hand disparity is significantly smaller.

The NRCC carried $20.2 million in the bank compared to $18.5 million for the DCCC.

Reynolds said he is not worried about the NRCC’s fundraising, nor about his colleagues’ willingness to pony up in the remaining months of the election.

“The strength of the Republican majority is the cohesive work of our Conference,” he said. The party’s 228 Members “know that we have to work together … to make sure we keep and grow this majority.”