Cornyn Plotting to Rob Peter

Posted January 23, 2009 at 6:05pm

As National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) charts his Conference’s course out of the political wilderness, he has narrowed in on two unlikely targets: House Republicans and the National Republican Congressional Committee, run by his Lone Star State colleague Rep. Pete Sessions.

In repeated conversations, Cornyn has revealed his sales pitch for rebuilding a Senate GOP that has sunk to 42 seats at best — a major component of which is telling donors and House Members he is recruiting to run for Senate that investing time and money in the House is an exercise in futility.

“I would love to get a Republican majority in the House, I just don’t think it’s feasible this cycle,” Cornyn said in an interview. “Now, that doesn’t mean they can’t make gains, and certainly they can. But we’re friendly competitors.”

Cornyn is candid that his appeals to GOP campaign contributors include emphasizing that — contrary to the Senate — House parliamentary rules afford the Republican minority virtually no power to obstruct or shape the agenda of President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats. Individual Senators have available to them a powerful set of parliamentary tools regardless of which party holds the majority.

Cornyn already has used this argument to try to recruit House Republicans to run for the Senate.

In describing a conversation with Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), whom Cornyn is trying to lure to run for what will be an open seat in 2010, the NRSC chairman said: “Being in the House right now — and as a Republican — is not a lot of fun. So I think it’s more fun, and you can have a lot of impact being in the Senate right now, so I hope he’ll come join us.”

Castle, Delaware’s at-large Representative for several years, is popular. But the First State has leaned increasingly Democratic since the early 1990s, and Republicans would be hard-pressed to hold Castle’s seat if he retired to run for Senate. Castle is being courted to run for Vice President Joseph Biden’s old seat, now held by Sen. Ted Kaufman (D), who has said he will not run to retain it in 2010.

Cornyn hasn’t set out to create headaches for House Republicans and the NRCC, not to mention Sessions. The Senator finds intriguing the idea of cooperating with the NRCC on messaging — as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did in the 2006 and 2008 cycles — and stresses that he means no ill intent despite the somewhat confrontational nature of his sales pitch.

But in his usual logical, lawyerly style, Cornyn is doing what he believes makes the most sense to accomplish his goal of not just preventing Republican Senate losses in 2010, but also winning seats.

Cornyn’s task doesn’t appear easy. Many of the 18 Democratic seats that are up in 2010 appear safe, which is not the case for the 19 Republican seats.

Privately, political strategists familiar with Cornyn’s approach say he’s playing it smart.

In terms of candidate recruiting, these strategists say that attempting to lure House Republicans to run for Senate with the enticement of being more relevant is simply stating the obvious. Beyond Castle, the NRSC has indicated an interest in recruiting Reps. Peter King (N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) to run for the Senate in their respective states.

When it comes to fundraising, the NRSC’s appeal is more deliberate. Particularly because the business community has set its sights on derailing passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, or “card check,” the NRSC is purposely pointing out that the only chance of preventing the bill from reaching Obama’s desk for his signature is a GOP Senate filibuster.

The legislation, which would eliminate secret-ballot elections to determine whether a company’s employees should unionize, passed the House on a virtual party-line vote in the 110th Congress but died at the hands of a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate.

“It’s no crafty sales pitch. It’s true. [House Republicans] are down [40] seats,” said one GOP operative partial to Cornyn’s strategy.

Republican House sympathizers, however, question the effectiveness of Cornyn’s rhetoric, noting that the NRSC employed a similar approach last cycle and still lost at least eight seats. They also note that Senate Republicans will have a hard time mounting a filibuster in the 111th Congress given that they have the bare minimum of Members required to sustain one.

The NRCC appeared unfazed by the tactics being employed by Cornyn and the NRSC.

“There is nothing wrong with a little friendly competition. Chairman Sessions understands the leadership role that Sen. Cornyn has been tasked with and he looks forward to working with him,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. “We are confident that the committee will be successful in our fundraising and recruitment efforts.”

Given the tight restrictions on how much individual donors and political action committees can contribute, a certain amount of competition between the House, Senate and national party campaign committees within each party is to be expected. Federal Election Commission regulations dictate that individuals give no more than $69,900 combined to national party committees during the 2010 cycle.

For the House and Senate campaign committees, that competition typically extends to recruiting, as the NRSC and DSCC often try to poach House Members they feel would make strong Senate candidates.

Even with the high level of cooperation that existed during the 2006 cycle between then-DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who is now Obama’s chief of staff, a degree of tension between the two committees remained.

“If you’re a Democrat in the House, you don’t want anyone from the Senate plucking your Members away and creating a competitive seat you’ll have to defend,” said one Washington, D.C.-based Democratic operative who previously worked for one of the Congressional campaign committees.

“There’s a healthy rivalry that the committees have to work to keep in check.”

Among the ways the DCCC and DSCC cooperated the past two cycles was on field operations, ensuring that the two campaign arms did not duplicate efforts and waste resources. During the 2006 cycle in particular, Schumer and Emanuel conducted joint news conferences.

Both Cornyn and Sessions have expressed a desire to work together whenever possible this cycle, hoping to reclaim control of the House and Senate or at least rebuild a minority that was further depleted in 2008.

According to one senior Republican Senate aide, Cornyn would be better served from a public relations standpoint to highlight where the two GOP campaign committee chiefs are cooperating, rather than where they are competing. However, this GOP aide conceded that Cornyn may have success using this tactic to recruit and raise money.

“The reality is, each Senator has a bigger megaphone and more of an ability to impact what goes on in Washington,” this aide said. “That being said, I don’t know that it is wise to throw the House under the bus, and do so in a way that could become public, to win an argument.”