What is it like to be dramatically outspent in a critical election year? You could ask John McCain that question. You could also ask his fellow Arizonan, Rep. John Shadegg (R.), who felt the full force of Democrats' fundraising advantage this year.
Having survived a $4.5 million onslaught by Democrats seeking his northern Phoenix House seat, Shadegg said that this extraordinary Democratic expenditure was more than just a threat to his own job. It was also one of the most serious symptoms of the current Republican malaise. Conservative donors' disillusionment and liberal donors' enthusiasm helped Democrats win close races and compete in regions where their left-wing message is usually greeted coldly.
"My donors are disgusted, and my activists in my district are disgusted," Shadegg tells National Review Online. "If they continue to be disgusted, we're going to have a repeat of the last two elections, where we lost more than 50 seats."
Money isn't everything, but next year's GOP fundraising success will be one clear indicator of whether the Republicans can show they have learned the lessons of 2008. And the new Republican congressional leadership, which will be elected later this month, will have to address the underlying problem if Republicans are to become competitive again.
"The challenge for our new elected leadership has to be to inspire Republicans across the country, and in particular donors and activists," says Shadegg. "This election has to reach NRO's target audience. This is not an internal race about members and their pals and backers and friends, unless we want to stay a permanent minority."
Conservative representative Mike Pence (R., Ind.) threw his hat in the ring for the position of Republican conference chairman after receiving the blessing of Republican study committee chairman Jeb Hensarling (R., Tex.) and minority leader John Boehner (R., Ohio). That such a conservative critic of President Bush as Pence should become the chief crafter of the Republican message in the House would certainly represent "change."
"When I was elected, the first bill George Bush sent to the Hill was No Child Left Behind," Pence says. "And then when I'm reelected, the first thing he sends to the Hill was the prescription-drug entitlement. The point is that we began to practice big-government Republicanism. It's an idea that's offensive to millions of people who hold Republican ideas."
Pence, who remains unopposed in his leadership race, began his run for conference chairman after Rep. Adam Putnam (R., Fla.) resigned from that position on election night. Pence said that Republicans cannot be content with waiting for an Obama administration to overreach, but instead must change course on their own by presenting a positive, conservative agenda.
"This year's election result was a combination of our own loss of credibility and an extraordinarily compelling Democratic candidate for president," says Pence. "The way back to the Republican majority is to return our party to both the practice and the articulation of that broad conservative agenda that minted the 1994 majority, that propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980. I don't think the American people walked away from the Contract with America - I think we did."
The relative lack of competition in the top House leadership positions could be seen as either good or bad - indicating either a ready consensus around the need for change, or that a critical conversation is not taking place. Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio) has no opponent for House GOP leader. Rep. Eric Cantor (R., Va.), who is believed to be interested in that position, instead set his sights on the whip post, which was promptly vacated by Rep. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.)
The other two positions - House Policy Committee chairman and NRCC chairman - will be contested. Rep. Michael Burgess (R., Tex.) is challenging Rep. Thad McCotter (R., Mich.) for the policy spot. (McCotter recently produced a post-election reflection on the party's problems.)
The most closely watched leadership election will be for the NRCC chairmanship - the spot most important to House Republicans' future electoral prospects. The current chairman, Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.), has received much criticism this cycle for the committee's poor fundraising. The NRCC came up $30 million short of its Democratic counterpart this year.
On election night, Cole defended his record in a late conference call, noting that Republicans had expected much greater losses than the 20-some they suffered. He also blamed Rep. Tom Reynolds (R., N.Y.), the previous NRCC chairman, for leaving the committee in debt.
Boehner, who had a much-publicized confrontation with Cole last September over his running of the NRCC, is backing Cole's repeat challenger for the position, Rep. Pete Sessions (R., Tex.).
It's clear the Republicans have to make some changes, but it's unclear what changes are necessary and whether they'll be able to enact them. These elections will provide important clues before the next administration even starts.
By David Freddoso
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online