Despite a trio of recent special election losses blamed partly on getting stuck with flawed nominees, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has no plans to change his policy of not getting involved in primary contests.
In an interview Friday, Cole acknowledged that the poor quality of the GOP candidates in Illinois 14th district, Louisianas 6th district and Mississippis 1st district contributed to the Democrats gaining those historically Republican-performing seats. But with several contested GOP primaries on tap in the coming months in competitive or potentially competitive districts, Cole said the NRCC would continue to steer clear of attempts to influence the outcome.
Im not reconsidering the NRCCs approach, Cole said. We could make a lot of errors, and at this point the last thing a candidate would want is to be the hand-picked candidate of Washington, D.C.
There are at least 10 upcoming contested GOP primaries in districts that could be competitive in the general election, including New Jerseys 3rd and 7th districts and New Mexicos 2nd, set for June 3; Kansas 2nd and Missouris 9th, set for Aug. 5; Wyomings at-large, set for Aug. 19; Floridas 16th, set for Aug. 26; Arizonas 1st and 5th, set for Sept. 2; and New Hampshires 1st, set for Sept. 9.
Republicans ability to win those districts could be affected by the quality of their nominees, and some GOP strategists have criticized Coles insistence that the NRCC remain on the sidelines during party primaries.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said his partys recent special election victories are prompting DCCC strategists to re-examine the House playing field to see if they have overlooked opportunities to gain seats. But he stressed that over 50 Republican-held seats are in play and have strong Democratic challengers in place because of an exhaustive recruiting effort that began the day after the 2006 elections.
Cole indicated that the NRCC does not have a blanket hands-off policy when it comes to contested primaries, suggesting that House GOP leaders and other Republican Members who get involved in contested primaries individually have the committees blessing.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has endorsed GOP primary candidates in Kansas 2nd district (former Rep. Jim Ryun), New Hampshires 1st (former Rep. Jeb Bradley) and New Jerseys 3rd (Medford Township Councilman Chris Myers).
Still, Cole said he believes the electoral prospects of Republican House candidates are better served by an NRCC that doesnt pick sides in a primary, even subtly or behind the scenes. Cole also said that too much attention is being paid to tactics, when the real problems House Republicans face right now are political, in particular voters incredible distaste for the GOP on almost every measurable level.
Were in a challenging election environment, and I dont need the Republican coalition falling apart, Cole said. This thing is always great when it works. When it doesnt, its really nasty.
Coles two immediate predecessors as NRCC chairman, outgoing Reps. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) and Tom Davis (Va.), both favored exerting the committees influence in primaries as necessary.
Van Hollen credits this strategy for his partys gains in this years three special elections, saying the tactic is one of the reasons why more House seats are in play this cycle than last, when Democrats won 30 seats and regained control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years.
Like the NRCC, the DCCC rarely offers a formal endorsement in a contested primary.
But over the years, campaign committee chairmen who favored an aggressive approach to identifying and recruiting candidates have courted those whom they believed had the best chance of winning the general election in a particular district, and signaled to local party officials that national money wouldnt be spent on the race absent that individuals nomination.
Thats exactly what Van Hollen and the DCCC have done this cycle. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) operated similarly in the previous cycle, when he ran the DCCC. Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), serving his second term as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has also thrown his weight around in primaries, achieving considerable success.
I think its an essential part of a successful strategy, Van Hollen said Friday in a telephone interview while on a campaign swing through Minnesota. You can have a district that might be competitive. But with the wrong candidate, youre not going to get across the finish line.
Examples of Van Hollen exercising that strategy include recruiting the eventual winner of the May 3 special election in Louisianas 6th district, and luring former Senate aide Anne Barth (D) into the race in West Virginias 2nd district.
In Louisianas 6th district, Van Hollen courted now-Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) into the race before it was evident former Rep. Richard Baker (R) was going to resign, and quietly but clearly supported him even though he was running in a contested four-way primary.
In West Virginias 2nd, the DCCC worked to recruit Barth into the race against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), making it clear that she was the committees preferred candidate even though two other Democrats were running in the May 13 primary. Barth won the primary contest last week with 61 percent of the vote.
Not all House Republicans have taken Coles laissez-faire approach to primary races.
In Texas 22nd district Republican primary runoff campaign, Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) mobilized almost every member of his states House GOP delegation behind former Senate aide Pete Olson, who defeated former Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs in the April 8 contest after he finished behind her in the March 4 primary.
Sessions raised money for Olson and provided him organizational and strategic assistance because he and his colleagues felt that Olson was the best candidate to face Rep. Nick Lampson (D) this fall in the Republican-leaning, suburban Houston 22nd district. Sekula Gibbs was viewed as a flawed candidate ever since her brief stint in Congress toward the end of 2006 ended in controversy.
We felt that we had one candidate in the race that would make sure that we could get this seat into Republican hands, said Guy Harrison, Sessions chief of staff.