Hill GOP Looks to McCain

Rebranding Under Way

Posted April 28, 2008 at 6:32pm

Even as House GOP leaders tout Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) long-awaited plan to rebrand the party, Congressional Republicans have begun to piggyback their political message with that of their prospective presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and expect to increasingly follow his lead in the months ahead.

Boehner’s leadership office said Monday that the Ohioan’s rebranding project should be ready for unveiling in a matter of weeks. It is intended to serve as a template for House Republican candidates — both incumbents and challengers — to argue what they stand for, not just what they are against, though the specifics remain under wraps.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) on Monday expressed confidence in Boehner’s blueprint, noting that the Minority Leader has been inclusive in his effort to create a new set of principles that define House Republicans. But Cole cautioned that it was important for Congressional Republicans to work with McCain on party messaging to ensure that the two camps are on the same page.

“I think it would be a big mistake to get out ahead of the presidential campaign and find yourself out of step with, or at odds with, John McCain,” Cole said in an interview. “This is not a ‘Contract with America’ kind of year. This is where the presidential campaign provides the lead.”

Still, for House Republicans, looking to McCain for philosophical and policy guidance could be dicey. Many House Republicans have differed with McCain on campaign finance reform, illegal immigration and climate change.

Cole acknowledged this but noted that “there’s plenty of common ground” between conservative Republicans and McCain on key issues like the Iraq War, reforming the earmark process and making permanent President Bush’s tax cuts.

But McCain only recently began laying out where he stands on key issues. Until Boehner’s rebranding project is ready, and until McCain’s message is more defined, Republican House candidates will have to be self-reliant to provide a rationale to voters for their candidacy.

Cole argued that it’s far too early in the campaign to worry about messaging. He said the extended Democratic presidential primary would overshadow any agenda offered by House Republicans now.

Cole also suggested that McCain might speed up how he sells himself after the general election contest begins. If it was up to Cole, House Republicans would unveil their agenda in the fall, when voters will be focused on the elections.

“Why roll out something right now?” Cole said. “The country is focused on the Obama-Clinton death fight. Then, [this summer] it will be who the vice president is going to be.”

Evidence of cooperation between the McCain campaign and Congressional Republicans is beginning to show, albeit slowly.

Late last week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released an e-mail fundraising appeal and Web video that asked donors to help Senate Republicans support McCain’s call for a summer gas tax holiday.

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign last week briefed House and Senate Republican leaders in advance of the multistate campaign swing the Arizona Senator kicked off Monday to discuss health care policy. The McCain campaign has initiated regular conversations with Republicans on Capitol Hill, from the staff level up to elected leaders, so that the two sides can work together.

“The campaign is actively working with Hill leadership to ensure that Republican leaders in Congress and candidates on the trail are familiar with John McCain’s vision,” said McCain campaign spokesman Jeffrey Sadosky.

House Republicans plan to roll out their agenda, the product of Boehner’s rebranding effort, in the next few weeks — ideally before the Memorial Day recess so that Members and candidates can take the message home to voters.

The purpose of the effort will be to lay out the reasons why the GOP wants to lead.

“If the Democrats aren’t the answer, why us?” a GOP strategist said. “That is the structural purpose of this: Why us?”

Until the unveiling, the House Republicans’ message is likely to consist solely of what’s wrong with the Democrats.

Lately, the carping has involved high gas prices. Boehner’s political action committee, Freedom Project, on Thursday publicized a memo to Republican challengers urging them to hit Democratic incumbents on gas prices and to accuse Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of failing to address the issue.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t appear too concerned — either with Boehner’s project or McCain’s potential to give the Republicans a much-needed face-lift. The fact that the DCCC closed the first quarter of this year with $44.3 million on hand, compared with just $7.2 million for the NRCC, could be one reason why.

“National Republicans are in disarray because they have a disastrous brand, no ideas, and are on the wrong side of the war and the economic issues middle-class Americans care most about,” DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.

Cole said during a briefing with reporters Monday that the political landscape has unfolded about as well as Republicans could have hoped for this cycle and that McCain is “probably our best candidate for this election cycle,” citing his image as a reformer and a maverick.

The NRSC agrees, and in particular expects McCain to aid vulnerable incumbents running for re-election in Democratic-leaning states like Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon.

But Democrats disagree.

They see the Republican brand as irreparably damaged for 2008 — and predict that McCain will prove no better at lifting Congressional Republicans this year than President Bush was in 2006.

“John McCain has said he’s OK with leaving American troops in Iraq for 100 years and has admitted he knows nothing about the economy,” said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “That’s not the kind of top-of-the-ticket leadership that will benefit Republicans.”

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.