Several House Republicans are facing potentially competitive primary challenges next year, and most are none too pleased with National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) and his hands-off policy when it comes to defending incumbents who are threatened from within the GOP.
At least eight House Republicans have credible primary challengers thus far — with more likely to find themselves in a similar situation by early 2008. A few of the challengers have banked enough money to signal viability, and some knowledgeable Republicans say Cole’s policy could unnecessarily cost the House Republican Conference both seats and campaign cash.
“I for one would be screaming bloody murder, especially when the NRCC is asking us to raise money for the committee,” said one senior House Republican aide. “I believe there will be strong push back from certain Members regarding this policy.”
Cole, who said upon assuming control of the NRCC this cycle that he was not inclined to intervene in Republican primary contests, reiterated that position last week during his first formal news conference as the committee’s chairman, explaining that this position extends to GOP incumbents.
“There’s no hard and fast rule on protecting incumbents, but I’m inclined not to,” Cole said.
On Monday, the NRCC attempted to soften Cole’s position, noting that the committee as a matter of policy will not meet with any individual seeking to challenge a Republican incumbent. The committee also released to Roll Call a statement from Cole emphasizing what both he and the committee plan to do on behalf of incumbents.
Notably absent from Cole’s statement were offers of financial and field-operative assistance from the NRCC for incumbents facing primaries. However, Cole did say he plans to support some of these incumbents personally — a move that ultimately could be viewed as an indication of the NRCC’s preference depending on the race in question.
“The NRCC will continue to support our incumbents by offering incumbent services, technical assistance, political advice and by encouraging supporters to give to GOP Members who might have tough races,” Cole said in the statement. “On a personal level, I have and will continue to give to these Members financially through my leadership PAC and will hold fundraisers on their behalf.”
The four Congressional campaign committees tend to back their incumbents as a general rule and often are referred to as “incumbent protection programs.” But at the NRCC, Cole appears to be breaking with his recent predecessors, although he has not completely ruled out aiding an incumbent who is under fire from a fellow Republican.
The eight Members already dealing with this threat are Reps. Dan Burton (Ind.), Chris Cannon (Utah), Wayne Gilchrest (Md.), Ralph Hall (Texas), Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.), Ric Keller (Fla.), Ralph Regula (Ohio) and Jean Schmidt (Ohio).
Other Republicans who could join them in fending off primary challengers include Reps. Barbara Cubin (Wyo.), John Doolittle (Calif.), Doug Lamborn (Colo.), Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and Bill Sali (Idaho), to name a few.
Most Republican insiders expect the NRCC to steer clear of defending ethically tainted Members such as Doolittle and Renzi — and would support this tact. Some would even be happy to see the NRCC leave Members such as Cubin and Schmidt to their own devices, as the GOP might have a better chance of holding their seats in the general election with nominees who are stronger politically. Both Cubin and Schmidt won narrower-than-expected victories in 2006 despite the heavy GOP lean of their districts.
But other than situations involving ethics or electoral advantage, some Republican strategists are critical of Cole’s policy, contending it is more difficult and expensive to defend an open seat, regardless of how politically safe a district is.
“It is a lot harder to win an open seat than it is to defend an incumbent, no matter the district,” said one GOP strategist with extensive experience in House races.
Hall, who currently has three primary challengers, didn’t seem concerned about the prospect of not having the NRCC to lean on in Texas’ March 2008 primary. He said in an interview Monday that he would continue to raise money for the NRCC even if the committee declines to come to his aid.
But most Republicans bristle at the notion that a committee funded by GOP House Members and designed to protect incumbents from electoral threats would not automatically have their back.
The NRCC “ought to consider policies that are the most efficient way to regain the majority,” said Gilchrest Chief of Staff Tony Caligiuri.
Caligiuri was quick to point out that Cole has offered his support and assistance to Gilchrest, and he added that the Maryland Republican has no reason to believe the NRCC will not endorse him in his primary.
But Caligiuri cautioned that the Free State’s 1st district has a majority of enrolled Democrats and said the GOP would jeopardize its chances of holding this seat if the popular Gilchrest — a moderate — lost his primary to a Republican who was further to the right on the political spectrum.