The National Republican Congressional Committee will not take sides in any House GOP primaries this cycle, NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) said in an interview Friday.
Cole also said that he will refrain from doling out personal endorsements and campaign contributions in primaries while he is chairman.
Cole’s decision partly is due to the wishes of House Republicans, who in a recent closed-door meeting were fairly unified — and vocal — in their desire that the NRCC avoid playing kingmaker in contested primaries. But Cole also attributed his policy to a belief that candidates who navigate a primary without help or anointing from Washington, D.C., insiders emerge battle-tested for the general election and in a better position to secure the support of grass-roots Republicans.
Cole said he will not be endorsing any primary candidates as the 4th district Representative from Oklahoma because he believes his job as NRCC chairman doesn’t allow for a distinction — and because such a move could be interpreted as a de facto endorsement by the committee.
“We’re not going to be in primary situations. Our membership has made it pretty clear that they don’t want us to do that,” Cole said. He added: “There were a number of primaries I was in last cycle because of personal relationships. I don’t have that luxury this time.”
Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), the NRCC chairman in the 2004 and 2006 cycles, took a slightly different view. During his tenure at the committee, the NRCC openly involved itself in at least one key primary, with Reynolds bestowing his personal endorsement on a primary candidate in an open or Democratic-held seat at least twice.
Reynolds’ record on this front was mixed — and his moves angered some Members of the House Republican Conference. But some Republicans believe he was right on strategy, and say Cole must allow himself the same flexibility if the GOP is to have a shot at regaining the majority.
“If you seriously want to attempt to take the House back, you want to ensure the best candidate possible is running,” said one Republican operative with experience running House races. “You can’t do that if you’re afraid of taking a risk.”
Typically, the four Congressional campaign committees don’t endorse in primaries as a general rule, though each cycle usually brings with it a few exceptions. It also is common for the committees to work behind the scenes on behalf of their preferred candidates, while maintaining an air of public neutrality.
In the previous cycle, the NRCC openly jumped into the primary in Arizona’s 8th district, where staunch conservative Randy Graf was battling three moderate Republicans who were seen as a better philosophical fit for the moderate GOP seat and better positioned to beat the Democratic nominee in the general election.
The NRCC, believing Graf couldn’t beat likely (and eventual) Democratic nominee Gabrielle Giffords, backed then-state Rep. Steve Huffman in the GOP primary. The NRCC spent money on independent expenditure advertising in an effort to aid Huffman, only to see him lose to Graf anyway.
Some Republicans believe this early pre-primary rebuke by the NRCC left Graf crippled in the general election, with almost no chance of beating Giffords, who went on to win handily. Had the committee refrained from playing in the primary, some critics say, Graf might have been able to beat her.
Still, Reynolds’ strategy was successful elsewhere.
In 2004, in his capacity as the Congressman from the 26th district of New York, Reynolds personally endorsed now-Rep. Charlie Dent (R) in Pennsylvania’s 15th district. Dent defeated two other primary challengers, winning 51 percent of the vote, and went on to win the open seat in the general election.
Last year, Reynolds personally endorsed Iraq War veteran Van Taylor in Texas’ 17th district GOP primary. Taylor was seen as the most attractive candidate to take on incumbent Rep. Chet Edwards (D) in the solidly Republican district.
But after beating former Congressional aide Tucker Anderson in the primary, Taylor was beaten handily by Edwards in the general election.
Cole, a political consultant by trade before ascending to Congress in 2002, maintained that he is very unlikely to deviate from his vow to stay out of primary contests. However, there are exceptions.
If a GOP primary included a Republican candidate who is a racist or an anti-Semite, or exhibits other qualities that are extremely anathema to the values of the Republican Party, the committee would move to aid that candidate’s opponent, Cole said.
Also, should a Republican incumbent draw a token primary challenger who is not in any real position to win the nomination, the NRCC will not sit on its hands and wait until after the primary contest to work on behalf of the incumbent’s re-election. In the case where an incumbent Member attracts a serious challenger, those situations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“We will monitor races we think are important, but will not try and affect the outcome,” Cole said. “We’re really not in the game of picking winners and losers.”