House GOP Bulks Up Outreach Operation

Posted January 6, 2009 at 6:41pm

Without a national leader for the first time in eight years to rally their party’s base and rebuild broken coalitions, House Republicans are undertaking an ambitious effort to expand their outreach to outside activist groups, as well as rebuild ties to K Street.

“Our effort will work to help build dynamic multilayered, outside-the-Beltway coalitions that will help the Republican Conference explain the value of our policies and the impact they will have on the American people,” said Jeff Burton, the recently named coalitions director for Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

While the offices of Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and former Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) had staffers in charge of K Street outreach in the 110th Congress, the rest of the leadership team did not have formal positions.

This year, the Republican Study Committee and the GOP Conference added positions that will eventually work together to make sure the GOP message is being heard through communications, new media and coalition building. The National Republican Congressional Committee is expected to make a similar hire.

The RSC, chaired by Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), recently hired two staffers to take charge of the outreach effort. Jonathan Day will oversee business outreach, and Alex Shively will work with conservative coalitions.

Last month, Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) brought on former Blunt staffer Melanie Looney to serve as director of coalitions for the Republican Conference.

Without George W. Bush in the White House, Republicans no longer have to support an agenda set from above. Instead they will be responsible for not only touting their own principles but positioning their ideas in such a way that the public will listen.

“As the Bush presidency concludes, Republican grass-roots outreach is being re-tasked with a different mission,” said Rob Collins, Cantor’s chief of staff.

“In the minority, without the presidency, we have to think and act as guerrilla advocates, using the Internet and other avenues to quickly and cheaply connect with middle-class families about their real concerns about the economy and their jobs,” Collins said.

The additional focus on grass roots among House GOP leaders is viewed positively among K Streeters.

“The more resources you have and the more lines of communication you have to allies downtown and grass roots, the better off you are to coordinating and integrating strategies,” said Ron Bonjean, chief executive officer of the Bonjean Co. and former spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “Usually you have one person per leadership office; beefing up beyond that shows increasing awareness that they need better dialogue.”

A dialogue is exactly what Republicans hope to open with issue groups on the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle. And with their numbers diminished, the GOP is going to need all of the extra voices that they can get to help get the message out.

“One of the keys to the success of winning in 1994 was not just [Speaker] Newt Gingrich, but it was also because of [coordination efforts] like the Wednesday group meetings that Grover Norquist organized,” said Jason Roe, managing partner at the Federal Strategy Group. “It gives grass-roots [supporters] more involvement in what is happening.”

The strong ties between Republicans and the K Street community atrophied after the Jack Abramoff scandal tarred the profession and sent several former GOP staffers and one Member of Congress to jail.

Republican sources say that the outreach operation is still in its infancy but that they hope to set up a network modeled on the extensive movement established by President-elect Barack Obama during his presidential campaign.

“People saw that Obama was very effective in tapping into a grass-roots network of people that wanted change,” a Republican lobbyist said. “Naturally the Republicans want to do similar things with their constituency.”

While the coalition effort is seen as much-needed, some Republicans downtown believe that the House leadership must avoid taking K Street for granted.

“I think in the past it’s sort of been one of these check-the-box sort of things,” the Republican lobbyist said. “They call in a bunch of association heads to have a group meeting, and I think they are taking a look back and saying how do we best communicate and more effectively communicate with people downtown and tap into their networks of people outside the Beltway.”