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New Minority Gets a New Messenger

Even in the best of times, the Republican Conference chairmanship is often said to be the toughest, most thankless job in the party’s leadership.

And with the GOP now out of power and unable to control the House floor or move legislation, all Republicans can do is try to craft a new message that might convince voters to put them back in the majority.

Leading that effort is fourth-term Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who, at age 32, is the second-youngest current House Member and the youngest lawmaker ever to hold the Conference chairmanship.

“The spotlight is more acutely trained on him” than other leaders, observed a former Conference aide. “The message driver is all you really have in the minority. The job is a huge opportunity, but with it comes a lot of potential for negative blowback — the pressure is certainly there.”

In a Jan. 31 interview, Putnam outlined the groundwork he is laying down to create what he envisions as a “one-stop shop” for the Republican message machine, which he says will include “Member communications, Member services, assistance in whatever they are doing in their offices, and the [legislative] shops in terms of policy work.”

His first step was to hire what he considers an “all-star staff,” from which he sought out aides from former leadership offices and the campaign operation. For instance, Putnam hired three aides to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — Seth Webb as chief of staff, Emily Seidel as operations director, and Rachel Hodges, who will run Member services.

He also hired former National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ed Patru as communications director, and Brian Schubert, communications director for former Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) to serve as deputy director for external communications.

“We’ve got this really talented group of people who have been on the Hill a long time and understand how the House works,” he said.

Putnam said he and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) also are jointly seeking to make the two operations work in tandem more than they have in the majority.

“There is much more of a yin and yang between Conference and Policy than there has been in the past, and I think that’s a very healthy thing,” Putnam said, noting that he and McCotter worked together most recently to host a number of listening sessions with the rank-and-file on the Iraq War.

“Conference needs to know where its members are, and Policy needs to find the right way to fashion an appropriate Iraq policy,” he said. McCotter is “the chairman of the incubator and we have to be the megaphone for that.”

Yet redefining and selling the Republican Party to the electorate — and doing it in time to give the GOP a fighting chance to win back the House in 22 months — is a tremendous undertaking, particularly with the 2008 presidential election dominating the election cycle.

“We have to take advantage of the short window we have before the presidential politics completely overtakes the political discussion,” Putnam acknowledged. “That means we have to be pretty fleet of foot to get that done.”

Putnam said he seeks assistance from Conference Vice Chairwoman Kay Granger (Texas) and Conference Secretary John Carter (Texas) to fully engage the rank-and-file. Granger, for instance, has been running what Putnam called a “Best Practices” program to find and single out Members who utilize effective messaging tools and present them at the weekly Conference meetings.

He said the Conference is working to revamp its Web site operations to integrate new media outreach, such as blogs and YouTube, to “break through” the Beltway media and reach younger voters in particular.

“I have blogged, but there’s not one on my personal Web site, and that has to change. It’s almost embarrassing,” he said. “We all have to get more comfortable with” new media.

A spokesman for Putnam later contacted Roll Call to say that the Conference is expected to launch its new blog this week at Putnam will lead it off, but Members are expected to rotate posts.

Putnam also has sought outside counsel from GOP pollsters and consultants on how to use words to re-brand the party. He has met with Frank Luntz, a well-known message consultant, and Kerry Knott, a former aide to former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). Both Knott and Luntz took part in fashioning the GOP’s 1994 “Contract with America.” Putnam also has met with GOP pollster David Winston (who is a contributing writer for Roll Call).

Sources added that additional outside Republicans who could play a role in the branding efforts include Bill McInturff, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, Gary Andres of Dutko Worldwide, GOP Pollster Whit Ayers, and Rich Thau, a focus group specialist who has a Wall Street background and has consulted with Conference in the past.

Message “is hugely important,” Putnam said, “Democrats were very disciplined in the last two years, not only in their votes but in their language.”

Putnam said the two issues where the GOP brand slipped the most in the 2006 election cycle were fiscal issues and ethics.

“We’ve taken a huge hit on fiscal responsibility, which is just appalling to think about,” he said. “Everybody understands a ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ and nobody understands shaving a tenth of a point off of entitlement spending that saves you $40 billion dollars.”

He added: “Ethics undermined everything we did. Not because of any specific issue, but because the corruption and ethics became the lens through which everybody viewed us on any given issue. It just softened up all of our Members so negative attacks stuck more than they may have otherwise.”

Despite the negative climate, Putnam has a lot working in his favor — youth and likability. Much has been said about his age and rapid rise in leadership. He has benefited significantly from the patronage of Hastert, who recognized Putnam’s ability early and continues to play a mentor role.

“He’s been wonderful to me, and we obviously stay very much in touch,” Putnam said of the ex-Speaker.

He also cited former Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) — also a friend of Hastert’s — as a Member who helped guide him early in his career, and Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), who was also elected in 2000 and is a close friend to Putnam despite being 30 years his senior.

Putnam insisted that his age, at this point, is a non-issue.

“When I ran for Policy chair, I really thought it would be a big problem and it turned out not to be much of a problem at all. And when I ran for Conference chair, it never came up. If you look at our Conference, there are a lot of young Members in a position of influence,” he said, pointing to Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), 43, Budget ranking member Paul Ryan (Wis.), 37, and Rep. Patrick McHenry (N.C.), 31, who now is the youngest Member of Congress.

Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), 76, the dean of the Florida delegation and the longest-serving Republican currently in the House, said Putnam’s age is irrelevant.

“First of all, Adam is very well-liked and highly respected by his colleagues, so I don’t think you’ll ever see someone try to put him down because of his age, because his ability far surpasses his age,” he said.

“I recognized Adam Putnam right after he got here. I remember at a very large Chamber of Commerce function I received an award and made a speech and Adam was in the room and I said at the time, ‘This young man has so much talent that if he stays in the House long enough he will be Speaker one day,’ and that was only two years ago and now he’s well on his way up the leadership ladder.”

In the past, Conference has not been an immediate jumping point to bigger and better things. Former Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) backed out of seeking another term in the 110th Congress when it became clear she did not have the support to win, Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) left the House after serving as chairman and Boehner was defeated for the post in 1998 by Watts before rebounding in 2006 and winning the Majority Leader’s race to replace former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas.).

Still, others interviewed for this story noted that the last Republican to serve as Conference Chairman in the minority, Armey, became Majority Leader when the GOP swept into power in 1994. If Republicans can pull it off, some in the party believe, it is not hard to imagine Putnam on the same trajectory.

“Can you [win a majority] in two years? You can’t completely turn around Congressional hostility, but you can make an awful lot of progress toward that,” Putnam said. “I think with a solid presidential nominee, better atmospherics and a better sense of the way the country’s going, then I think all of that plays into a climate that allows us to retake the majority.”

Evan Haine-Roberts contributed to this report.