Cornyn’s NRSC Rolls Out Red Carpet for Underdogs

Posted April 12, 2011 at 6:45pm

It’s a whole new show of hospitality this cycle at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is making every effort to appear neutral in GOP primaries this year — and in some cases rolling out the red carpet to tea party candidates to demonstrate its neutrality in races.

During the last cycle, the committee supported — either informally or formally — certain candidates in primaries, only to watch many of them lose to tea-party-backed underdog opponents in the Nevada, Colorado, Kentucky and Delaware Senate races.

NRSC Chairman John Cornyn has made it clear that he will not let this happen again, proclaiming to his colleagues last December that the NRSC would stay out of primaries. But with the Senate recruitment season in full swing, the NRSC is already showing its hospitality to non-traditional candidates: No contender is too much of a long shot, and no race is too insignificant to get assistance.

“Last cycle, a lot of candidates felt snubbed by them. This time, they’re meeting with everyone,” one D.C.-based GOP operative said. “They know that if they don’t meet with everybody, it will look like they’re playing favorites.”

For example, NRSC officials invited long-shot Virginia Senate candidate and tea party activist Jamie Radtke over for a meeting with Cornyn. Radtke and ex-Sen. George Allen (Va.), a former NRSC chairman, are running in the GOP primary.

“I thought it was a very positive meeting,” Radtke told Roll Call. “They had extended the invitation to come up and meet with Sen. Cornyn. He just wanted to make sure I knew what services were made available at the NRSC. … He made it clear that they would not be weighing in on the primary.”

NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said it has been the committee’s long-standing policy to meet with potential challengers — no matter the caliber of their candidacy. 

“Just like last cycle, we are happy to sit down with anyone who is interested in running against one of the many vulnerable Democratic incumbents,” Walsh said. “We’re going to continue to work hard, and we’ll let Republican primary voters choose the nominees, and do whatever we can to help those nominees win in November.”

But last cycle, some individual tea-party-backed candidates complained publicly about their treatment from the NRSC. This time around, several underdog candidates described nothing but warmth and accessibility from Cornyn and his committee. 

Ed Martin, an underdog Senate candidate in Missouri, described his meeting with Cornyn and NRSC officials earlier this month as “very welcoming.” His face time with Cornyn went into overtime in the Texas Republican’s stately first-floor office, NRSC aides held on to his luggage during his other meetings across town and they even let him use the committee’s conference room to make calls throughout the day.

“I don’t know in the past if they got that kind of welcoming thing, but they were nice to me,” said Martin, who is running against former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman in the still-forming GOP primary. “I thought Sen. Cornyn was really interested in me, really interested in the race, how I thought I could compete. … It was a very pleasant experience. His statement to me was, ‘If you need anything.’”

Last cycle, many former candidates with tea party backing recalled they didn’t exactly receive VIP treatment from the NRSC.

When New Hampshire’s Ovide Lamontagne was planning his bid for Senate last cycle, he met with NRSC officials, including Cornyn, in early July 2009. A few weeks later, Lamontagne was caught by surprise when he was forwarded an invitation to a fundraiser with Cornyn and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) for now-Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.). The NRSC never officially endorsed Ayotte, but after that, it was clear to Lamontagne that the committee’s allegiances were with her.

“It became pretty clear that by mid-July that they were at unofficially backing Kelly, so I didn’t spend a lot of time reaching out to them at that point. It was pretty obviously where they were,” Lamontagne said in a phone interview. “I was very surprised to see that they had gotten involved in our primary, particularly because there was already some blowback for playing in the Florida primary.”

The NRSC infamously backed then-Gov. Charlie Crist for Senate early on in the 2010 cycle — only to have the endorsement backfire when now-Sen. Marco Rubio, a conservative Republican with tea party backing, acquired more Republican support than the sitting GOP governor over the course of the primary.

When Crist announced his candidacy in May 2009, Rubio had just met with officials at the NRSC, where Cornyn told him that the committee would be formally endorsing the sitting governor instead, according to sources familiar with the situation. Rubio and the NRSC had minimal contact until the moderate Republican governor jumped ship to run as an Independent in April 2010.

As early as March 2010, when it was clear Rubio would be the likely victor of the Republican primary, Cornyn said he’d learned his lesson. He told reporters he’d endorsed after former Gov. Jeb Bush opted against a Senate bid and felt that Crist was the best candidate to help the NRSC avoid spending a lot of money.

Ken Buck, the GOP nominee in Colorado last year, recalled he met with Cornyn and top NRSC staff a month or two after he announced his bid — a meeting he described as “pleasant.”

“I didn’t hear from them and they didn’t hear from me until just after the primary. They were certainly more excited when my primary opponent got into the race than when I got into the race,” said Buck, who recalled several GOP Senators came to Colorado to raise funds for his opponent, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.

Buck went on to upset Norton in the GOP primary, and, he added, the committee was “tremendously helpful” in the general election — although Buck narrowly lost his bid to Sen. Michael Bennet (D).

Other candidates went public with their dissatisfaction with the NRSC in the middle of the 2010 cycle.

Christine O’Donnell, who upset moderate Rep. Mike Castle in the Delaware Senate primary, complained on national television that she did not have enough resources from the national party. Immediately following O’Donnell’s primary win, there were reports the NRSC would not support her general election bid. After the resulting pressure from the tea party, Cornyn reached out to O’Donnell and transferred the maximum allowable $42,000 to her campaign.

It’s highly unlikely that Cornyn will find himself in a similar situation this cycle.

“I understand from statements made by Sen. Cornyn that they’re going to take a different approach this time around,” Lamontagne said.