House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) retreated Tuesday from his threat to oust the top two strategists at the National Republican Congressional Committee amid widespread complaints about fundraising, recruitment and the competency of its top staff.
But Boehner’s decision is unlikely to pacify GOP lawmakers, lobbyists and aides who are concerned about the NRCC’s strategy and mounting money woes.
During a private meeting Tuesday, Boehner sought to smooth over tension with NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.), tacitly acknowledging his differences with the campaign chief while promising members his leadership team remains united.
Cole affirmed those sentiments immediately afterward, members and aides present said, but that outward display of unity belies deep-seated frustration with operations at the campaign committee.
“Cole and I have had a candid conversation every week,” Boehner said Tuesday as he left the meeting. “I respect Tom Cole. He’s a valued member of this team. My goal is to help us earn back our majority. I’ve had the same kind of frank and candid conversation about the goals we all need to meet.”
The peacemaking session comes at a time of high anxiety for Republicans. A wave of retirements, scandals and disappointing fundraising reports has washed away hopes of winning back the majority next election.
One immediate casualty has been the relationship between Boehner and his campaign arm, the NRCC. But it is not clear the NRCC deserves all of the blame.
Five GOP lawmakers, all of whom refused to be quoted by name discussing internal operations, said fundraising has been terrible in large part because base voters are very sour on the GOP right now, largely because of the party’s failure to crack down on illegal immigration.
Even those members eager for a major shake-up at the NRCC concede most longtime donors are not interested in giving any money to Republican campaign committees.
“The majority of members of the Republican Conference have great confidence in both John Boehner and Tom Cole,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.). “Tom Cole and the NRCC staff have done a great job digging us out of the debt.”
Boehner has directed his frustration at NRCC Executive Director Pete Kirkham and Political Director Terry Carmack, telling colleagues the two men are failing to stitch together viable campaign and fundraising strategies for the next year.
This culminated a few weeks ago with Boehner pushing for their ouster. Cole, who tapped the two men for top jobs at the NRCC, threatened to resign if Boehner did not back off.
The minority leader finally retreated Tuesday, but the story is unlikely to end there.
Griping on Capitol Hill is commonplace among members and staff, particularly when the news remains grim, but Boehner generally avoids the outward confrontation favored by his predecessors in the top spot, making this dust-up even more significant.
Boehner, his allies say, was echoing the concerns members, aides and Republican lobbyists harbor against the campaign committee’s upper management.
On Tuesday, some members expressed sympathy for Cole and relief that he and Boehner avoided a major showdown.
Some also suggested frustrations with the committee stem more from life in the minority than from anything the chairman or his staff could do differently.
But those sentiments are in stark contrast to the numerous complaints that have spilled out since news first broke that the two leaders were locked in a confrontation about the direction of the committee.
The primary concern is that Cole and his staff have not created an overarching plan to either pick up seats or, at the very least, minimize losses in the face of repeated retirements and an ever-eroding campaign landscape for congressional Republicans.
Fundraising is also a major issue.
The NRCC trails the Democratic ongressional Campaign Committee in overall fundraising this cycle, but the most glaring gap is that the Democrats’ campaign arm has almost $21 million more in the bank than their Republican counterparts — a development most blame on the $10 million-plus in debt from last year’s election.
Cole terminated many of the committee’s pricey telemarketing contracts at the beginning of the year because they were so expensive and because those firms had garnered negative headlines — for example, one firm gave awards to local businessmen in exchange for campaign donations.
But these firms also generated millions in campaign receipts.
The fundraising department has also failed to contact many of the hundreds of donors who gave the committee maximum donations during the last two-year election cycle, according to GOP political operatives familiar with the committee.
“The NRCC is retooling for the new age we are in,” said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who chairs the organization’s finance committee. “That just takes time.”
Members, aides and outside lobbyists raised numerous, more specific concerns on the understanding their names not be used in order to speak freely.
These concerns include fears the committee has lost much of its institutional knowledge in the past year, following the exodus of most senior aides, and a general sense that Cole still intends to target Democratic incumbents who are out of the committee’s reach, given its fundraising struggles in the minority.
This showdown could become a political liability down the road for Boehner and Cole if the committee continues to perform poorly, aides and outside lobbyists said. Boehner is now on record questioning the personnel judgment of his campaign chairman, but he failed to remove the two aides in question.
But the Republican leader can frame the showdown as a unified decision by the elected leaders because he included Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Cantor at the meeting in which he challenged Cole to move personnel.
Some aides suggest the leader may still force changes at the NRCC, but many members were upset the current flap emerged in the press and appear reluctant for more turmoil atop the party.
“The bottom line in all of this is [there is] going to be change at the campaign committee,” one senior GOP leadership aide said. “I think the message was sent and received — loud and clear.”
But the Tuesday session served as a chance for the leaders to “kiss and make up,” one lawmaker said afterward.
Boehner closed his brief speech by telling members there was “no daylight” between the elected leaders, which presumably includes Cole.
He also reminded the assembled lawmakers that there were doubts last year that he could work closely with Blunt after they sparred in a three-way race to lead the party, but the two now oversee a “seamless operation.”
For his part, Cole complimented Boehner for being a strong ally and an active backer of the committee.
The NRCC chairman told his assembled colleagues that no one has been more helpful to him or other Republicans in the House than Boehner.
He also reminded them that their leader has been through a lot during his time in the House and bounced back — Boehner lost his own leadership post in 1998, in part because Republicans performed poorly at the polls.
“He has been there and come back,” Cole told his colleagues.