Reynolds' Departure Leaves GOP Reeling

In his old role as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) often cajoled wavering Republicans into running for re-election. Back home in his district Thursday afternoon, Reynolds announced that he won’t be running again himself.

Consider it a sign of how the House GOP views its prospects for November.

Having just lost 30 seats and their majority power, Republicans in the House started 2007 thinking that their political fortunes couldn’t get much worse.

The more optimistic thinking went like this: Democrats who’d won seats in solidly conservative districts in 2006 would have to defend those seats in 2008, when they’d likely be saddled with Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ presidential nominee.

The GOP would have a long list of potential targets and, with only eight Republicans representing seats in districts that John Kerry won in 2004, a relatively short list of vulnerable members to protect. And the ethical problems that proved so damaging to the party in 2006 would be distant memories by the time voters went to the polls the next time around.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

A sizable wave of retirements, a significant financial disadvantage, a brewing accounting scandal and recruiting woes in some of the nation’s most heavily Republican districts has left a party once poised to play offense struggling to break even instead. Republicans now face a serious risk that they’ll lose more House seats to the Democrats in November. Among them: the one Reynolds is vacating.

While sympathizing with Reynolds’ plight – “the last few years have not been for fun for him” – a GOP operative said Thursday that the former NRCC chairman’s retirement will only make matters worse for a party that’s already reeling. “It will further depress an already-dejected House GOP conference,” the operative said. “Twenty-nine [retirements] and counting, and some great members and exceptional minds are among that number.”

In one sense, the problems that have faced Reynolds are specific to him. He was involved in the Republican leadership’s stumbling response to the Mark Foley scandal in 2006, and he was the chairman of the NRCC when the committee named as its treasurer Christopher J. Ward, who allegedly embezzled several hundred thousand dollars from the NRCC and possibly more from other committees.

But Reynolds has been involved in most major events surrounding the House Republicans’ political standing in recent years, and his personal political fortunes have mirrored his party’s prospects ever since his quick rise into leadership. And he isn’t the only House Republican touched by ethical concerns.

Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), who is not running for re-election, was recently indicted on 35 federal corruption charges. Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), also not running for re-election, is under federal investigation over his ties to imprisoned former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who faces a spirited primary challenge, is under investigation by the Justice Department and has spent much of his campaign funds on legal fees.

Reynolds is the 29th House Republican to announce a retirement or resignation or already to have lost a seat this election cycle. Many vacancies are in districts that will likely be highly competitive in the fall: Of the 29 Republican-held open seats this election cycle, nearly half are in districts where President Bush won with 55 percent of the vote or less in 2004.

Over the last two years, Democrats have already picked up the seats of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and DCCC communications director Jennifer Crider said Thursday that her party is “well positioned to pick up Reynolds’ seat” as well.

“With today's announcement, fve of six elected Republican leaders from the 2006 cycle have retired or quit -- Hastert, DeLay, Pryce, Doolittle, and Reynolds -- and Democrats are competitive in each of these districts,” Crider said.

At his press conference, Reynolds said he was confident that Republicans will be able to hold his seat. It is one of the most Republican districts in the state, giving President Bush 55 percent of the vote in 2004. And Republicans comprise 41 percent of registered voters in the district, while just 31 percent are registered Democrats.

“Make no mistake,” Reynolds said. “This is a Republican district, and it will again be represented by a Republican next year.”

But the Republican Party’s standing in New York has taken a hit lately, particularly in the ancestrally Republican upstate part of the Empire State. Since 1996, Republicans have lost a Senate seat and seven House seats in New York -- without picking up a single Democratic district in an election.

Already, Republicans are privately concerned about their chances of holding onto the bordering Syracuse-district of longtime Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) and the re-election bid of John “Randy” Kuhl (R-N.Y.), who has struggled to raise significant sums of money.

Republicans believe that Sen. John McCain will be an asset for their down-ballot candidates, particularly in more moderate districts throughout the country, like in Reynolds’ western New York seat.

"With John McCain at the top of the ticket and widespread disapproval of the Democrat led Congress, we will have more than enough political ammunition in the fall," said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain.

But what they won’t have is money, or at least not “more than enough” of it. The NRCC reported that it ended February with $5.1 million cash-on-hand -- about $1.3 million less than last month’s total and a fraction of the $38 million the DCCC said it had on hand at the end of February. The NRCC spent over $1.2 million – nearly one-fifth of its entire campaign cash – in the unsuccessful effort to defend Hastert’s seat in a special election earlier this month.

Democrats' eyes are wide with their financial advantage and a spate of new seats to target, but party leaders are privately warning their rank-and-file that they will be unable to capitalize on those opportunities if members do not contribute campaign funds to the DCCC. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) began asking her members last week how much they planned to contribute to the party's campaign arm.

Practically, Democrats will also need to spend money to defend many of their own seats in the fall. Republicans have spent much of the current Congress trying to saddle freshman Democrats with a few bad votes that will translate to ads on the campaign trail later this year, and they claim to have just the ammunition they need to pressure these lawmakers.

But the GOP would need the help of outside groups to capitalize on those opportunities available to them because the NRCC has shown few signs of competing for campaign cash with the Democratic majority. And many Republicans are privately skeptical if these outside groups will spend the money they promised to spend in support of the party.

The GOP’s best hope may lie in an anti-incumbent atmosphere developing across the country, which could complicate the reelection efforts of typically safe incumbents and lead to a few surprises in the fall if gas prices soar and the economy continues its decline. Republican pollster David Winston said Congress’ historically low approval ratings suggest that voters are clamoring for legislative results, not just partisan activity.

“It's not an anti-incumbency environment…It's a ‘validate your incumbency’ environment,” Winston said. "Voters are really pressing for accomplishments. [Voters] want points on the board, not first owns."

Democrats appear to be satisfied with the crop of candidates who were already planning to challenge Reynolds. Iraq war veteran Jonathan Powers has been running since last June and has won endorsements from five of the seven county party committees in the district.

Powers has also banked more than $260,000 in cash-on-hand, a credible starting point against a Republican. In the Democratic primary, he will be facing attorney Alice Kryzan and possibly Reynolds’ 2006 opponent, millionaire industrialist Jack Davis, who has not yet officially announced.

Republicans have a long list of potential candidates, with state senator George Maziarz looking like an early frontrunner, according to a GOP source. Former Assembly Minority Leader Charles Nesbitt and Assemblyman Jim Hayes are also possible contenders.

“New York’s 26th Congressional District has a history of electing strong Republican leaders like former Reps. Jack Kemp and Bill Paxon,” said NRCC Chairman Tom Cole in a statement. “This is a solid Republican district, and I look forward to serving with the next Republican to win the seat in November.”

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.
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