Skip to content

Boehner Sees NRCC Involved in Primaries

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced several changes in strategy and administration at the National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday — including a move by leaders to become more involved in primary fights.

At the GOP Conference weekly meeting, Boehner told colleagues that the first change would be that leaders would be “proactive” in seeking to prevent situations that leave the eventual GOP nominee battered and broken heading into the general election.

Later in the day, however, NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) denied there was any major policy change in the works. Cole has said from the beginning of the cycle that the NRCC would stay out of primaries, though that strategy was widely criticized after the party lost three special elections with a series of flawed candidates.

“Our policy hasn’t changed,” Cole said Wednesday. “There seems to be some confusion about that.”

Cole said the NRCC would not be spending its limited financial resources on primaries and would generally avoid involvement. He also dismissed the idea that NRCC involvement in the primaries in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi would have been helpful, arguing that it would have backfired instead.

“Either side we chose was going to create a lot of hostile feelings,” Cole said. And in districts such as Mississippi’s 1st, where each primary candidate had significant local support, “guys like that aren’t going to back out of the race.”

Still, Boehner’s decree at Conference is an acknowledgement that leadership can be more involved behind the scenes to help the party end up with the best possible candidate.

But the first test of that new goal may be a primary that the NRCC and GOP leaders have little desire to step into.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who is under federal investigation for corruption, is facing a stiff primary challenge from Alaska Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. A recent poll showed Young trailing the Democratic challenger by 10 points, and he is widely viewed, even privately among fellow Republicans, as being the weaker general election nominee.

Boehner’s comments opened the door to questions about whether leadership might engage in primaries if it is clear an incumbent is the weaker general election nominee.

“It will be interesting to watch whether leadership’s notion of ‘being proactive’ in primaries will include getting involved in the Alaska race,” one GOP aide said. “Being proactive to prevent harmful situations for House Republicans — and the American people — should probably include preventing Members embroiled in scandal and potentially under indictment from returning to Congress.”

Cole declined to talk about whether the NRCC would get involved in the Alaska primary, where the Club for Growth and other groups are gunning for Young.

“Don hasn’t asked us to do anything,” Cole said.

Another sticky situation for the party could come in Kansas, where former GOP Rep. Jim Ryun is attempting a comeback but faces a party-splintering primary challenge from state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins (R).

Cole also said he didn’t think the party should get involved there either.

“We’re going to help the winner. That’s not one that I feel we ought to get into,” Cole said.

Boehner also announced that Cole has agreed to an audit of the NRCC’s handling of the special election races — a top-to-bottom review of what worked and what didn’t work in terms of the committee’s spending, advertising and ground efforts.

Former NRCC Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) and Rep. Patrick Tiberi (Ohio) are heading up the audit effort.

“There’s a lot that we can learn out of those three races that will help us out for the fall,” Boehner said Wednesday.

Davis has also agreed to head the new NRCC advisory committee that Boehner created recently to help guide the NRCC.

Davis called the move to become proactive in primaries “smart,” and he recounted how he and former NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) got in trouble for getting involved in some primaries.

“You don’t always win them,” he said.

He said that while Members might have appreciated Cole’s hands-off approach in primaries, not allowing the national party influence in determining nominees is a bad move.

“He’ll have a bloody nose,” Davis said, referring to the first time Cole steps into a fight. “Trust me, I got plenty of them.”

Asked whether the NRCC should get involved in Alaska, he said, “I don’t know what they’ll do on it … My gut is that they’ll stay out of it.”

Parnell rode into office in 2006 with Gov. Sarah Palin, who casts herself as a Republican reformer in a state where indictments fall as often as snow. At least one publicly released poll shows him within a few points of Young.

Boehner said the NRCC is expected to pivot to emphasize incumbent retention efforts, a reflection of the poor political environment the GOP faces. To that end, Republican strategist Ed Brookover is expected to join the committee’s staff to beef up the incumbent retention program as well as other administrative areas. Brookover is a former NRCC staffer and has since worked with the committee as a political consultant.

“Washington is very unpopular with the American people, and we think incumbents on both sides are going to have a choppy election,” Cole said.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said it is late in the cycle for Republicans to overhaul their system. “Changing your policy at the bottom of the ninth with two outs is not going to turn around your fortunes,” Van Hollen said.

Boehner indicated that the party has already taken an active role in the newly open-seat race to succeed retiring Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.).

“We’re going to take all steps necessary to maximize our chance of holding the seat,” Boehner said.

The GOP leader has also tapped Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) to take the lead on establishing a series of candidate funds for targeted races with late primary elections.

Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Democratic lawmaker takes the bait on Greene ‘troll’ amendment

Kansas Rep. Jake LaTurner won’t run for third term

At the Races: Impeachment impact

Capitol Lens | Striking a pose above the throes

Democrats prepare to ride to Johnson’s rescue, gingerly

Spy reauthorization bill would give lawmakers special notifications