Shellshocked House Republicans got warnings from leaders past and present Tuesday: Your party’s message isn’t good enough to prevent disaster in November, and neither is the NRCC’s money.
The double shot of bad news had one veteran Republican House member worrying aloud that the party’s electoral woes — brought into sharp focus by Woody Jenkins’ loss to Don Cazayoux in Louisiana on Saturday — have the House Republican Conference splitting apart in “everybody for himself” mode.
“There is an attitude that, ‘I better watch out for myself, because nobody else is going to do it,’” the member said. “There are all these different factions out there, everyone is sniping at each other, and we have no real plan. We have a lot of people fighting to be the captain of the lifeboat instead of everybody pulling together.”
In a piece published in Human Events, the Republicans’ onetime captain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, warned his old colleagues that they face “real disaster” on Election Day unless they move immediately to “chart a bold course of real reform” for the country.
And in a closed-door session at the Capitol, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told members that the NRCC doesn’t have enough cash to “save them” in November if they don’t raise enough money or run strong campaigns themselves.
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Although a top House Republican brushed aside Gingrich’s broadside as “hype from a has-been who desperately wants to be a player but can’t anymore,” the harsh words from Cole were harder to ignore.
“It was a pretty stern line that he took with us,” said one House Republican.
Cole, on the defensive in the wake of special election losses in Louisiana and Illinois, pointed his finger Tuesday at his Republican colleagues, telling them that they had been too stingy in helping fund party efforts. He also complained that the Republicans ran weak candidates in both Louisiana and Illinois — a charge Cole made despite the fact that, as NRCC chairman, he could have played a major role in choosing the party’s candidates if he hadn’t made the decision to stay out of GOP primaries.
In his meeting with members, Cole distributed a document showing that even former Republican political guru Karl Rove had badmouthed Jenkins, according to GOP sources. It’s not clear whether Cole meant it as a criticism of Rove or of Jenkins.
But Cole’s overall message was clear, said members who sat through the meeting: “If you’re not out doing your own work, and you’re waiting for the NRCC to come in at the last minute and save you, it ain’t gonna happen.” That’s how one lawmaker characterized Cole’s talk, adding that the NRCC is “not going to have the resources” to help all members “and Democrats will have a lot more money.”
Republicans are suffering a crisis of confidence after the two special election losses. There’s talk that House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and other GOP leaders could be ousted if the party suffers double-digit losses in November.
Gingrich’s broadside did little to calm the GOP jitters.
While Gingrich softened his blow by circulating it privately to the GOP leadership on Monday — a day before it was publicly released — his language was still strong, and his message was seen as a broad attack on Boehner, Cole and the rest of the Republican leadership.
“The Republican loss in the special election for Louisiana’s 6th Congressional District last Saturday should be a sharp wake-up call for Republicans,” Gingrich wrote. “Either congressionl Republicans are going to chart a bold course of real change or they are going to suffer decisive losses this November.”
Gingrich said Republicans cannot rely on the popularity of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, to carry them to victory in November. And he warned that attacks on Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, could backfire.
“The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti-Rev. Wright or, if Sen. Clinton wins, anti-Clinton campaign, they are simply going to fail,” Gingrich said. “This model has already been tested with disastrous results.”
The NRCC ran TV ads tying Cazayoux to national Democratic figures in the Louisiana special election, only to see Democrats grab control of a House seat that had been in the GOP column for more than three decades.
Gingrich, who was pushed out as speaker following GOP losses in the 1998 midterm elections, advocated “an emergency, members-only” meeting of House Republicans in order to hash out a new reform agenda before Memorial Day. He also called for a “complete overhaul” of the NRCC.
Gingrich said that if the GOP leadership would not go along with his plan, “then the minority who are activists should establish a parallel organization dedicated to real change.” He offered nine policy proposals designed to achieve that goal, including repealing federal gas taxes, reforming the Census Bureau and declaring English as the official language of the United States.
Boehner tried to put the best face on Gingrich’s message. His spokesman, Michael Steel, said that Boehner “certainly agrees — and has said repeatedly — that Republicans can only succeed this year by being agents of change and reform.” Steel said Republicans have to convince voters that they can “fix” Washington and that, in the coming weeks, they will be “laying out Republican policies that embody the sort of changes we need.”
But there is no question that Gingrich has identified a nervous undercurrent among House Republicans that could morph into full-fledged panic if the GOP loses a special election next Tuesday in Mississippi. Republican Greg Davis is squaring off against Democrat Travis Childers for the House seat held by former Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was appointed to the Senate to replace retired Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
With internal polls from both parties showing the race as a tossup, the GOP is putting on a full-court press. The White House has dispatched Vice President Cheney to Mississippi to campaign on Davis’ behalf. And Wicker, Lott, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour will hold events for Davis this weekend and early next week, according to GOP sources.
House Republicans will hold a rally with President Bush on Wednesday morning, with all 199 members invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to show solidarity with the president, according to GOP sources.