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Rogers Joins Race for Conference Chair

The still-theoretical race to take over the House Republican Conference gained steam in recent weeks, as the two existing candidates for the post stepped up their activities and a third threw his hat in the ring.

Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers said Tuesday that he would “absolutely” run if current Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) does not seek re-election.

“I do think I’m well-qualified and I understand the importance of our message,” he said.

Rogers joins Conference Vice Chairman Jack Kingston (Ga.) and Secretary John Doolittle (Calif.) as candidates to replace Pryce, who told the Columbus Dispatch in March that she would consider stepping down from leadership in 2007 to pursue the chairmanship of either the Financial Services Committee or the Rules Committee.

Pryce and her staff have since sought to downplay those comments.

“We’re six months into the 109th Congress, and House Republicans have already posted significant communications wins,” Pryce said Wednesday. “I’m committed to continuing that full-time job as Conference chair and have every intention of running again.”

Despite Pryce’s public pronouncements, the three candidates to replace her are campaigning as though they believe she has already decided to step down, according to several GOP lawmakers and aides.

Rogers, Doolittle and Kingston have each quietly begun the process of securing support and assembling a small group of lawmakers to help them count votes when the time comes.

Rogers’ entrance into the race marks a turning point in the contest and in the Michigan lawmaker’s House career. His name has been floated for several more senior positions in the past, but this is the first time he has taken a definite step toward running for leadership.

While not belittling Kingston or Doolittle, aides in two other leadership offices suggested that Rogers entered the chairmanship race as a likely frontrunner because of his communications and fundraising skills.

At the same time, a prospective race is still 18 months away, leaving plenty of time for other candidates to get in or for one or two of the current three to get out.

Since being elected by just 111 votes in 2000, Rogers has made inroads in several parts of the GOP leadership apparatus. He was a prime contender to become Chief Deputy Majority Whip in 2003 before the job was handed to Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.); he ended up running the whip operation’s coalitions effort, making him a key point of contact between the leadership and K Street.

Rogers has also been active with the National Republican Congressional Committee, serving as the campaign arm’s finance chairman in the previous cycle. In that capacity, he helped raise more than $180 million in hard money and also oversaw the Battleground effort, which took in a record $22 million from Republican Members.

Although he remains a member of the NRCC’s executive committee, Rogers has reduced his role there this cycle and has pointedly decided not to jump into the race to replace NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) in the 110th Congress.

Instead, Rogers has turned his focus toward policy and message, though he believes his work at the NRCC would help him in the Conference job.

“I understand the different communication strategies and how important that is in every Member’s district,” Rogers said.

Redistricting has made Rogers’ 8th district less competitive than it was in 2000, but he contends that his experience running in a swing seat is an asset. Every current member of the leadership comes from a relatively safe GOP district, and Rogers said he thought he could bring a unique perspective to the top table.

“Not every Member comes from a 70 percent Republican district,” he said.

Kingston and Doolittle, meanwhile, have continued their current work within the Conference in hopes of convincing their colleagues that they’re worthy of promotion to the chairmanship.

Kingston has a good relationship with the media and is a frequent guest on television news programs. He has been active in crafting the Conference’s Social Security message and has taken a lead House role in raising money for the upcoming President’s Dinner.

Kingston said that if Pryce does decide to leave her post, “we’re certainly interested and certainly planning to run.”

At the same time, Kingston cautioned that it is “very early” and that the party should focus on developing a Social Security plan and preserving the GOP’s majority.

“If everybody gets tied up in a sideshow of leadership offices then we lose sight of November ’06,” he said.

For his part, Doolittle has also been busy with his Conference-related tasks. A favorite of House conservatives, he is an active member of the Republican Study Committee.

“Chairwoman Pryce is doing a wonderful job as the Conference chair, and Mr. Doolittle sincerely hopes she decides to run again,” said Doolittle spokeswoman Laura Blackann. “However, if she chooses not to run, Mr. Doolittle intends to pursue the position. He has been talking with Members about this possibility and has been very pleased with the responses.”

Doolittle cuts a lower media profile than the other two candidates and has instead focused on internal efforts to make the Conference a resource for rank-and-file lawmakers. Recently, for example, Doolittle drafted a sample Social Security mailer and handed it out at a Conference meeting for other Members to use as a template.

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