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GOP Wary of Retirements

Party Predicts Bruising Cycle

As they look forward to Wednesday’s State of the Union address and the coming Social Security debate, Congressional Republicans gathered at their retreat last week to hear a buoyant forecast from President Bush and a more sober assessment of the electoral challenges they face in 2006.

Although the agenda for the bicameral gathering at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia covered a broad array of topics, Social Security was the dominant subject of discussion. Republican lawmakers heard from pollsters, from administration officials and from one another on how the subject affects their legislative agenda, as well as their prospects for re-election.

Bush told Members assembled at a luncheon Friday that “people ought to view this team we’ve put together, the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch, as people who [have] come to Washington, D.C., to solve problems.”

Bush said that he was “kind of warming up for the State of the Union.” He promised to “remind the country we’re still at war” and to reiterate the importance of spreading freedom.

While Bush touched on Social Security only briefly in his remarks, his top political strategist, Karl Rove, made reforming the retirement program the centerpiece of his own presentation.

Weaving together current and historical data, Rove emphasized the importance of Social Security and advised lawmakers not to worry that tackling the subject could doom them at the polls. According to one Republican who was present, Rove argued that the GOP had not lost a single lawmaker because of the Social Security issue in the past three election cycles.

Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten also touched on Social Security in his discussion of the budget outlook. As expected, Bolten promised that Bush’s forthcoming spending blueprint would be austere and that the White House was well aware of the need to rein in the deficit.

On the House leadership side, Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) used sports analogies to rally the troops, and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) dubbed his fellow lawmakers “servants of heroes,” profiling several Americans whom he said exemplified courage.

Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) unveiled a new communications strategy centered on forming teams of Members who would focus on specific issues, while House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (Calif.) and House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (Iowa) gave a joint presentation.

While discussions of the coming legislative agenda were decidedly optimistic, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) painted his GOP colleagues a stark picture of the challenge the party faces in 2006.

Reynolds stressed to his fellow lawmakers that “history tells us strengthening our majority will not be an easy task,” pointing out that “the GOP has always lost seats when a Republican president is in power during a ‘second midterm election.’”

Out of the six such midterms that have occurred, the only time the president’s party has ever picked up seats was in 1998, when Democrats picked up four.

On the message front, Reynolds observed that “senior turnout” would be especially important in an off-year election, making it imperative that GOP candidates develop a cohesive communications strategy to deal with Social Security and Medicare.

The key to avoiding the usual six-year funk, Reynolds said, was to keep Republican lawmakers from voluntarily giving up their seats. He pointed out that more Republicans than Democrats have retired in each of the past few cycles.

“We must limit retirements and we must eliminate the late and unexpected retirements,” Reynolds said.

Once again, the NRCC plans to depend on the “Battleground” program to raise money from incumbent Members. Last cycle, the program set a goal of raising $16 million and exceeded that target by $5 million. That success helped the committee spend more than $61 million directly on races, according to the chairman.

Yet while he lauded the amount of money the NRCC was able to raise and spend in the previous cycle, Reynolds complained, “Unfortunately, some of that money had to be directed away from offense and had to be spent on defense.

“We had five unexpected or late retirements last year in tough competitive seats which cost the NRCC over $12 million. … This money should have been spent trying to expand the majority instead of just trying to hold it.

“If there is any time to ask you not to retire, this is it.”

Reynolds also observed that instead of having Bush at the top of the ticket in 2006, the ballot would instead include an unpredictable mixture of Senate and gubernatorial races, creating the conditions for “a midterm election the likes of which this GOP majority has never seen before.”

Reynolds’ mantra for this cycle is “the three M’s — Members, money and message equal majority.” He emphasized this point by displaying a PowerPoint slide festooned with cartoon images of M&M candies.

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