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NRCC Turns to Seasoned Hands for Message Help

As House Republicans repair their political operations in hopes of taking back the chamber next year, their message gurus are looking downtown for help.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is asking veteran Capitol Hill flacks who now are working in the private sector to volunteer their advice on crafting a communications strategy.

House Republicans’ loss of 30 seats in the previous cycle was compounded by the exit of Carl Forti, who captained both the NRCC’s communications shop and its independent expenditure campaigns, writing TV ads in a number of races over the past two cycles.

Now, Jessica Boulanger, Forti’s replacement as communications director, is setting up an informal advisory group to help the party get back on track. At least 10 public relations professionals with decades of Hill experience among them are meeting with Boulanger on Feb. 8 at the Capitol Hill Club, for the first of what they expect will be regular meetings to plot strategy.

“We’re going to take sober stock of what occurred [in the previous cycle], and based on my experiences, and those of others at the table, we’re going to come up with some goals — some big ideas — and work from those to develop some strategies,” said Greg Crist, a former communications director of the House Republican Conference who now works at Dutko Worldwide. “It’s one thing to commiserate. It’s entirely different to make some headway on the communications front.“

Others involved in the effort include Gary Andres, also of Dutko; Stuart Roy, of DCI Group; Jonathan Grella, of Edelman; John Feehery, spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America; and David All, who recently left the Hill to open his own shop that focuses on new media technologies. Two alums of now-House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office — Terry Holt and Marc Lampkin — made the list, as did crisis management expert Barbara Comstock and strategist Jonathan Baron.

Boulanger declined to comment.

Those involved said their range of experience suggests the group could cover a lot of ground. Andres, for example, worked in the first Bush White House. At Dutko since 1993, he specializes in polling research and analysis.

“This is a completely different ballgame,” Feehery said. “It’s going from ‘Keep what’s yours,’ to ‘Get what’s theirs.’”

Boulanger’s gambit is not unprecedented. Communications strategists for presidential campaigns regularly assemble kitchen cabinets of public relations honchos to help navigate the media firestorms they often encounter.

Feehery, former spokesman for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said he also made a habit of reaching out to Hill and campaign veterans for assistance. “I would bounce a lot of ideas off of them, and they would tell me I was crazy most of the time,” he said.

Mike Johnson, a former spokesman for former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) who now lobbies for OBC Group, has hosted a breakfast that mixes Capitol Hill spinmeisters with PR professionals.

“It’s a very worthwhile venture for Jessica to reach out to her old colleagues and keep people engaged and bought in to the Republicans trying to recapture the House,” said Grella, who logged time for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

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