GOP Hopefuls Hurt by Flaws

Posted April 7, 2008 at 6:24pm

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole’s (Okla.) refusal to throw the NRCC’s weight around in GOP primaries could be coming home to roost in the way of flawed Republican general election candidates — one of whom has already lost.

In March, dairy magnate Jim Oberweis (R) blew a special election to replace former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) in Illinois’ Republican-leaning 14th district, losing by 6 points to now-Rep. Bill Foster (D).

On Saturday, controversial former state Rep. Woody Jenkins won a Republican runoff in Louisiana’s 6th district, putting the usual Republican stronghold in danger of flipping to Democrats in next month’s special election.

And today, Republicans could find themselves saddled with another weak nominee in another solidly conservative district, as former Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs (R) seeks to be her party’s candidate against Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas).

Sekula Gibbs’ perceived weakness has led Members of the House Republican leadership, including Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) — and almost the entire Texas House GOP delegation — to support former Senate aide Pete Olson (R) in today’s runoff. The 22nd district is described as too close to call by Republicans who have monitored the campaign.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill said the the race is “turning” on Sekula Gibbs’ charge that she has more local support than Olson, whom she describes as Washington, D.C.’s candidate, versus Olson’s response that he will leverage his Capitol Hill relationships to better serve the 22nd district.

“At this point in time, it’s hard to tell which side is winning in terms of the argument,” Woodfill said Monday. “But the folks supporting him are very popular — [Rep. John] Culberson (R), [Sen. John] Cornyn (R) — so the people supporting him are clearly an asset in his campaign.”

Privately, many Texas Republicans say Sekula Gibbs can’t beat Lampson, the conservative nature of the district notwithstanding. This opinion is based largely on their view of Sekula Gibbs’ behavior during her brief stint as a Congresswoman at the end of 2006, after she won a November special election to fill the remainder of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R) term.

Some Republicans are equally skeptical about their prospects in Louisiana, where internal GOP polling shows Jenkins trailing state Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) in the May 3 special election to replace former Rep. Richard Baker (R). Like Hastert, Baker won re-election in 2006 but chose to leave Congress before his term expired.

In all three races, neither Cole nor the NRCC did anything to influence the outcome of the GOP nominating contest.

In Illinois, Oberweis won a bitter GOP primary over state Sen. Chris Lauzen; Hastert endorsed Oberweis only after he could not recruit an ally into the race to replace him. In Louisiana, Jenkins — a newspaper publisher who was the 1996 GOP nominee for U.S. Senate but has been criticized as too conservative for the Baton Rouge-area 6th district — had far more name recognition than any of his primary opponents.

The NRCC’s bylaws prevent the committee from endorsing a GOP primary candidate outright without significant political wrangling. But the committee in years past has moved subtly to clear out primary fields and ensure that the most formidable candidate — at least as so perceived — emerged as the Republican nominee.

Cole’s policy to refrain from any involvement in primaries has met mixed reaction from House Republicans and the GOP consultant community. On Monday, the NRCC had nothing new to say on the matter, noting that committee bylaws prevent endorsing in a primary without the acquiescence of both the state’s House GOP delegation and the NRCC Executive Committee.

The NRCC’s engagement in primaries in years past has involved steering money from major donors and GOP leaders to preferred candidates; signaling to state and county Republican parties that the committee would not spend money on a race if the preferred candidate wasn’t the nominee; and using local, influential GOP donors to carry the same message regarding their checkbooks.

That’s what the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee effectively did in Louisiana’s 6th district, where it helped recruit Cazayoux even though it remained neutral in his primary runoff with state Rep. Michael Jackson (D).

“Dismal recruiting and poor decision-making have forced National Republicans to gamble on deeply flawed candidates, many of them third-tier or controversial self-funders who are poor fits for their districts,” said DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell.

Some Republican consultants who tend to disagree with Cole’s blanket policy against primary intervention are sympathetic to the difficulty posed by trying to affect a local, intraparty contest from Washington, D.C. Last cycle, the NRCC did so in just one case, running independent expenditure ads on behalf of one candidate in a crowded primary in Arizona’s 8th district; the committee-backed candidate lost the primary, and the GOP went on to lose the seat in the general election.

Cole has argued that, not only could the NRCC make enemies of local Republicans by trying to pick their candidate, but doing so often results in a general election candidate who is too dependent on the committee and not prepared for a tough general election race — financially or politically.

But some Republican strategists contend that it’s possible to weed out a deeply flawed candidate in the recruiting process. They believe it’s here where Cole miscalculated.

“It’s easier said than done,” one Republican consultant with experience running House races said in regard to intervening in primaries. “Cole was dealt a [bad] hand. The NRCC can’t wave a magic wand and make every campaign perfect. But it has to do what it can.”

Some Republican insiders believe Cole’s decision to let primaries play out, without working quietly to clear the field, could leave the eventual GOP nominee weakened in seats where it has the potential win, including in conservative-leaning districts like Kansas’ 2nd and Arizona’s 5th, where Democrats ousted Republican incumbents last cycle. With late primaries, the Republican nominees could emerge bloodied and broke with little time to recover before the Nov. 4 general election.

In Kansas’ 2nd district, state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins and former Rep. Jim Ryun are battling for the right to take on freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda (D); in Arizona’s 5th district, at least three Republicans are running for their party’s nod and the right to face freshman Rep. Harry Mitchell (D).

Christian Morgan, executive director of the Kansas GOP, said any heavy-handedness by the NRCC in the 2nd district could rub voters the wrong way and possibly hurt the eventual GOP nominee. Morgan said Republican leaders haven’t tried to influence the 2nd district Republican primary.

“I would advise the NRCC, if asked, that getting involved in a primary in Kansas is usually not the best idea,” Morgan said. “It would be received as someone coming in that’s not from Kansas trying to tell Kansas Republicans which way to go in a primary — it would be received with a skeptical eye.”