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NRCC Reaches Out After Loss

The National Republican Congressional Committee met with a number of conservative leaders over the past week after the loss of a special Congressional election in upstate New York earlier this month showed serious divisions within the GOP.

Looking to avoid a repeat of the election in New York’s 23rd district that split the NRCC and the party’s conservative base, campaign committee officials invited about 20 groups to the Republican National Committee headquarters for a briefing on their top recruits, to increase communication among factions in the party and to make sure the candidates passed muster with key conservatives.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told Roll Call that the NRCC learned from the chaotic situation in New York — where the Republican establishment’s initial endorsement of a moderate candidate led to a revolt from conservative groups, who endorsed the Conservative Party nominee and split the GOP vote — and understands the importance of keeping conservatives in the loop.

Norquist said that the briefing with conservative leaders was in part to mend fences with grass-roots organizations after several broke with the campaign committee in the weeks leading up to the eventual election of Democrat Bill Owens, and to help avoid another internal disaster.

House Republicans, who are 41 seats short of a majority, believe they have an excellent chance to wrest control of the House back from the Democrats — or at least come close. They also know that to make serious gains, they need to avoid intraparty skirmishes over candidates and their conservative credentials.

“As a result of [New York] 23, the level of coordination has gone up — in terms of everyone knows what everyone else is doing,— Norquist said in an interview with Roll Call reporters and editors on Friday.

A full list of attendees at the meeting could not be confirmed. But Norquist — who was not there but sent his chief of staff — said that more than 40 NRCC recruits were discussed, generally the top- and second-tier list of candidates who Republicans are relying on to help them win back the majority.

In each case, Norquist said, the conservative leaders present agreed that the Republican challengers met their litmus tests — though he conceded that some slightly less conservatives were deemed acceptable if they were running in swing Northeast districts.

“That’s as good as it gets in the Northeast,— he said. “That doesn’t keep us up at night.—

Earlier this month, the NRCC faced an all-out revolt from their grass-roots contingents as anti-tax groups such as FreedomWorks and the American Conservative Union and socially conservative groups such as the Family Research Council balked at the national party’s embrace of moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman, to replace Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.).

McHugh resigned from Congress to become to secretary of the Army.

Conservative groups dismissed explanations from GOP leaders who said Scozzafava’s selection was made by local party chairmen, and not only endorsed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman but actively campaigned against Scozzafava, who they branded as too liberal to be the GOP nominee.

“Scozzafava didn’t pass the laugh test as a Reagan Republican,— Norquist said.

The race descended into chaos in its final days as Scozzafava, weary from attacks on the left and right, dropped out of the race three days before the election and wound up endorsing Owens, who won by 3 points.

Norquist said none of the candidates the NRCC discussed with the conservative groups last week was anywhere near as liberal as Scozzafava. And he argued that the method for choosing special election nominees in New York will not be replicated anywhere else in the country in 2010, increasing the likelihood that Republican Congressional nominees in top races will be acceptable to conservatives.

“They went through the 45 candidates that they had and there were no problems,— Norquist said. “There weren’t any 23s.—

Norquist added that if the campaign committee had held similar meetings prior to the revolt over Scozzafava, leaders of the conservative groups would not have felt as though they were being kept out of the loop.

“This is exactly the kind of meeting that, if you had 20/20 hindsight, [would have helped] months ago when New York 23 poked up,— he said.

The NRCC has been working to expand its outreach to coalitions and hired a coalitions director to oversee the effort.

Ken Spain, a spokesman for the NRCC, declined to comment on the meeting but said that the campaign committee has worked all year to keep its coalition members involved.

“The NRCC under Chairman [Pete] Sessions [Texas] has engaged in an ongoing effort to communicate with grass-roots coalitions,— Spain said. “We believe this is critical to our success in 2010.—

While Norquist characterized the meeting as a step in the right direction for the NRCC, Erick Erickson, who runs the blog — and did not attend the meeting — said conservatives will support party leaders’ efforts in 2010 when the candidates they select measure up to the conservative groups’ standards.

“I think the NRCC will make amends not by outreach actions, but by aggressively supporting right-of-center candidates,— Erickson wrote in an e-mail.

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