House Losses Stoke GOP Tensions

House Republicans who hoped to be on a slow climb back to the majority by now are reeling from Democratic victories in special elections in Illinois and Louisiana, and sources say another loss in Mississippi next week would roil an already poisoned relationship between House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole.

Although there’s no love lost — and plenty of blame to share — between the two leaders, a well-connected Republican operative said that Boehner probably lacks the “muscle” to push Cole out.

But Boehner and other Republicans have already expressed a lack of confidence in Cole by raising money for GOP candidates and incumbents outside the NRCC’s purview, and they could further marginalize the NRCC chairman if he can’t keep now-Sen. Roger Wicker’s seat in the Republican column next Tuesday.

“Illinois was really bad, Louisiana was worse, if that’s possible, but if we don’t win in Mississippi, I think you are going to see a lot of people running around here looking for windows to jump out of,” said a Republican leadership aide.

House Republicans had assumed the worst was behind them when they were swept out of power in 2006. Yet after losing former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s old Illinois seat in March and Rep. Richard Baker’s Louisiana seat on Saturday, there is growing dread among members, staff and outside lobbyists that the party could lose even more ground in November.

But Republicans have few options available to change direction at this stage in the cycle. GOP insiders acknowledge that it’s too late to replace Cole. The NRCC won’t be able to overcome the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s huge fundraising advantage by November. And President Bush remains at historically low approval ratings, further dragging down the party’s hopes for a congressional comeback.

The reality is that, with six months to go until the elections, Boehner and Cole remain tethered together, their political fates intertwined in spite of the animosity between them.

Experts on both sides of the aisle are privately predicting that House Democrats will pick up more seats in the fall, despite the continued uncertainty about who will be at the top of the Democratic presidential ticket. The range of potential GOP losses is expected to be three to eight seats, experts say.

Wider losses would all but guarantee that Cole will quit or be ousted as NRCC chairman, and could threaten Boehner’s hold on the Republican Conference.

“If there is a bloodbath in November, Cole would be gone, but I think you could see Boehner, [Minority Whip Roy] Blunt and the rest of the leadership be replaced as well,” said a GOP lobbyist close to the leadership.

Cole’s supporters, for their part, are laying the blame for Saturday’s loss directly at the feet of their candidate, former Louisiana state legislator Woody Jenkins, calling him a “flawed candidate” who failed to raise enough money or come up with a message to beat Democrat Don Cazayoux. But that’s the argument the NRCC made when Democrat Bill Foster beat Republican Jim Oberweis in the March 8 election in Hastert’s old district, and the excuse is wearing thin for some Republicans.

Although there is no active movement to replace Cole, many of his colleagues are unhappy with the NRCC’s performance and question its tactics, including Cole’s refusal to get involved in disputed Republican primaries for open seats.

Asked about criticism that he might not have been the best candidate to fill that seat, Jenkins told Politico on Monday: “There are always these people nipping at your heels. I don’t know who else it would have been.”

Jenkins, who said he may run again for the seat in November, said the party did what it could in the limited amount of timebetween the primary and the special election, but the Democrats benefited from getting involved early and spending money in support of Cazayoux months before the NRCC could, given Cole’s decision not to get involved in primary fights.

The NRCC spent $440,000 in the Louisiana special election trying to prop up Jenkins, an effort further bolstered by hundreds of thousands of dollars in TV ads paid for by the conservative groups Freedom’s Watch and Club for Growth.

The NRCC tried to tie Cazayoux to Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as well as to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but nothing seemed to move the needle in Jenkins’ favor. The Republican ended up losing to Cazayoux 49 percent to 46 percent — a result that mirrored the 49 percent to 44 percent lead Cazayoux held in a poll his campaign released in March.

Cole has been very pragmatic about his naysayers since winning the NRCC post, acknowledging that every member has a right to second-guess but remaining steadfast in his own beliefs as a veteran campaign manager who also helmed the committee as an aide.

In Cole’s defense, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the chief deputy minority whip, said the Republicans have “some forces out there that need to be reckoned with.”

“There is a national mood that is reflected in the generic ballot. It’s a difficult environment. My sense would be that instead of assigning blame, we need to go forward.”

“I think that people are recognizing that this is a turbulent election where there are a lot of uncertainties, a lot of economic discontent,” said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who unsuccessfully challenged Cole for the NRCC chairmanship in late 2006. “There is a great deal of discontent with both parties.”

English insisted that “two specials do not make a trend.”

The NRCC tried to spin away Saturday’s result in Louisiana by saying that Cazayoux’s 49 percent victory was a “warning shot to Democrats” who needed to understand that “the elitist behavior of the Democratic front-runner, and the liberal and extremist positions that he and his fellow Democrats in Congress have staked their claim to, do not appear to be as salient as they once hoped.”

Further underscoring his differences with Cole, Boehner will take exactly the opposite approach when he speaks to House Republicans on Tuesday.

“The result this weekend in Louisiana’s 6th Congressional District should serve as a wake-up call to Republican candidates across the country,” reads a draft of Boehner’s speech provided to Politico. “As I said last week, this is a change election, and Republican candidates must show they are ready to lead a movement for reform.”

A GOP leadership aide said that, for all the unhappiness directed at Cole, there’s a limit to what others in the leadership can do. “Leadership has tried to support the NRCC, but ultimately they can’t go and take over the day-to-day running of the committee,” the aide said.

For now, it’s a waiting game until next Tuesday, when Democrat Travis Childers and Republican Greg Davis face off in Mississippi. The two are locked in a tight battle for the Wicker seat, with internal GOP polling showing Childers with a slight lead. Both the NRCC and DCCC have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. The DCCC, which has a huge cash-on-hand advantage over the NRCC, has spent $1.29 million so far, compared with just under $1 million for Republicans.

“I would certainly be concerned if we lose the Wicker seat, just as I was concerned about losing the Hastert seat,” said Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.). Boustany said Jenkins’ defeat was part of a “worrisome trend,” although he declined to say that it was a bellwether for the GOP’s prospects in the fall.

Boustany defeded Cole’s decision to have the NRCC back Jenkins. Boustany said he and his GOP colleagues in the Louisiana delegation asked Cole to spend money on behalf of Jenkins, even though popular Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal made only one appearance with the candidate.

“Well, you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t,” Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) said of Cole’s decision to spend money on Jenkins. “I thought the NRCC made a perfectly appropriate move in that situation.”