McCrery, the ranking Republican on the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, has become a pre-eminent fundraiser during his two decades in Congress. And his decision to step down at the end of this term is all but tacit acknowledgment that the GOP has little hope of regaining the House next fall.
Ambitious lawmakers spend years developing extensive fundraising networks to boost their prospects for key committee slots and leadership posts. And Republicans were particularly aggressive during their run in the majority, with party leaders pressuring members to create individual fundraising committees to help the GOP preserve power.
McCrery epitomized that aggressiveness, raising millions for Republicans everywhere in his quietly commanding way through his reelection account and his political action committee, the Committee for the Preservation of Capitalism.
But his retirement effectively ends all that.
McCrery becomes the latest high-profile Republican fundraiser to announce his retirement this year, joining former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who traveled to more than 200 congressional districts in each of the past two election cycles to raise money for his GOP colleagues, and Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who had nearly $1.9 million in campaign cash at the end of September.
Younger members will inevitably fill those voids, but that takes time. And the next generation must build those networks from the minority, a much harder prospect for soliciting campaign funds.
This year, McCrery has already given more than $540,000 to his party and to Republican congressional candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He’s expected to give much of his remaining $1.3 million to the party, including the Republican running to replace him.
But his retirement limits his future fundraising because donors are reluctant to give money to a lawmaker on his way out.
The National Republican Congressional Committee will particularly miss the infusions of campaign cash he has transferred to the committee over the years.
During the last two-year election cycle, McCrery gave the committee nearly $1 million, the fruits of his run for the Ways and Means gavel — a bid that would have been successful had Democrats not stormed to power. That tally put him right behind House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who gave the committee more than $1.1 million.
This year, as the ranking Republican on Ways and Means, “Gentleman Jim” has already given the committee $240,000, the second-highest dollar amount behind Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the third-ranking Republican in the House, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“While we are disappointed to lose a member that has been as helpful as Rep. McCrery, fundraising is and will always be a team effort, and we are confident other members will step up to the plate to make sure our efforts are successful,” said NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley.
Democrats, though, were quick to hail McCrery’s retirement as new evidence of the Republicans’ recent struggles.
“This is an issue and political environment so toxic to the GOP that even their longest-serving leaders have chosen to jump ship rather than face reelection,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Some Republican aides see the race to replace McCrery atop Ways and Means as a key fundraising opportunity for the party.
Officially, Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) has the most seniority, but leaders will tap the lawmaker who has done the most for the party, such as raising money, and who would act as the best foil to the chairman, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mih.), a health care specialist, is next in line behind Herger, and New York Rep. Thomas Reynolds, who was chairman of the NRCC in 2004 and 2006, has decided not to pursue the ranking slot, given his status behind so many other members of the committee, a source close to the congressman said.
Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have shots at the post, too. But Cantor is widely viewed as a top contender to lead the party down the road, and Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, sits behind eight other Republicans who plan to return to the committee in 2009.
Interested members will have plenty of time, though, to make their cases, because the House Steering Committee isn’t set to convene until after the next election.
In Louisiana, the Republicans considering a bid to replace McCrery include Shreveport lawyer Jerry Jones, who represents the congressman, and Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prater, according to a GOP operative in the state.
Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower is a potential Democratic candidate.
McCrery will be a tough member for Republicans to replace, because he’s the rare combination of studied policy wonk and keen political operator. He was the cerebral, soft-spoken antidote to acerbic former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who granted McCrery as much respect and responsibility as any other member of the committee.
The Louisiana Republican was instrumental in crafting President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and in helping write welfare reform legislation in 1996.
He toyed with retirement four years ago but reconsidered after party leaders dangled the Ways and Means chairmanship.
He reached out to Rangel early in that process, building a steady relationship with him. But in the end, the frustrations of another year in the minority provoked the 58-year-old congressman to call it quits without realizing his goal of chairing the tax-writing panel.
“I have tried hard this year as the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee to be a major influence on important issues,” McCrery said in a statement Friday night. “But on tax reform, Medicare and health care reform, and Social Security reform, our best efforts have come to naught.”
Given that disappointment, McCrery said, he would rather spend more time with his wife, Johnette, and his two sons than pursue a 12th term.