Will the NRCC Really Sit Out Primaries, as Cole Is Promising?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 11, 2007 · 11:05 PM EST

“We’re not going to be in primary situations. Our membership has made it pretty clear that they don’t want us to do that,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) told Roll Call recently, adding that his committee is not “in the game of picking winners and losers.”

Cole’s comments may not seem controversial, but they constitute a rather significant reversal of policy from the way both the NRCC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have acted as of late.

Both the NRCC under former Chairmen Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) and Tom Davis (Va.) and the DCCC under former Chairmen Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and the late Robert Matsui (Calif.) regularly were involved in recruiting candidates, clearing fields in some potential primaries and helping preferred candidates in primaries.

But Cole insists that while his NRCC is encouraging interested Republicans to run for Congress, it won’t clear primary fields for candidates or pick preferred candidates in contested primaries. That goes even for former Members who are running to win back their seats.

“If you can’t win the primary on your own [and you need the NRCC’s help], then you aren’t that strong of a general election candidate,” Cole told me earlier this week.

He is right, but only to a point. Sometimes, a campaign committee needs to get involved in a primary, or in heading one off, while other times committees should let a primary play out, taking a hands-off approach. There is no iron law on this.

Swearing off primary involvement except in the most extreme cases (such as if a racist or anti-Semite is involved) limits what the NRCC can do to help elect Members to Congress.

Remember, we aren’t talking about a formal endorsement here. Committees rarely do that, and NRCC rules set a very, very high bar for an endorsement. But campaign committees traditionally have guided political action committee money to and generally promoted preferred candidates, even without a formal endorsement.

Obviously, there are plenty of examples when a campaign committee’s effort to assist a candidate in a contested primary has created a backlash, hurting the candidate that the committee favored. Grass-roots Democratic activists went ballistic last year when the DCCC backed Steve Filson over now-Rep. Jerry McNerney in California’s 11th district primary. McNerney complained about the DCCC’s heavy-handed tactics, and he upset Filson.

The DCCC also picked the eventual loser in the New Hampshire 1st district Democratic primary, though like McNerney, the Democratic nominee in the Granite State won in November because of the Democratic wave. In Virginia’s 2nd district last year, the DCCC helped clear the field for Phil Kellam, who ended up losing narrowly.

In Ohio’s 6th district, the DCCC spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help state Sen. Charlie Wilson win a write-in campaign in the Democratic primary after he failed to file the 50 signatures necessary to make the ballot. Had Wilson lost the primary, Republicans might well have won the seat.

And elsewhere, DCCC efforts to recruit candidates, help a particular campaign or work to dissuade primary opposition obviously helped produce strong general election candidates, including now-Reps. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania’s 7th, Brad Ellsworth in Indiana’s 8th, Nick Lampson in Texas’ 22nd, Heath Shuler in North Carolina’s 11th, Kirsten Gillibrand in New York’s 20th and Christopher Murphy in Connecticut’s 5th.

So why is Cole publicly insisting that both he and the committee will be neutral? Undoubtedly, part of it is the complaining that anyone in earshot has heard for months about some of the NRCC’s past decisions. A handful of Republican Members have been particularly vocal about the committee’s decision last year to back moderate state Rep. Steve Huffman in Arizona’s 8th against conservative Randy Graf.

But some observers think that Cole’s stance actually gives him more freedom by tying his hands. Instead of being forced to support a former Member who is trying to return to Congress and who may not merit support, the NRCC can now say that it must remain neutral.

Republicans who support the NRCC’s new stance term the approach “tough love.” Essentially, the committee is telling Congressional candidates, even those with great credentials and potential, that it is up to them to put together an organization, raise the money and connect with voters. If they do, they’ll win their primary and be ready for a competitive general election, earning the NRCC’s support at the same time.

That’s a reasonable view, and in most cases the best general election candidate will win the primary. But when there is a well-funded but deeply flawed candidate in a crowded primary, the best general election candidate won’t always win. In those cases, a hands-off policy does its Members no favor.

I certainly am not suggesting that the NRCC or any committee throw its weight around clumsily. A committee doesn’t need to endorse primary hopefuls or publicly brag of its involvement to have an effect on a race. A wink and a nod to PACs, or the placement of a good campaign manager, is enough.

Operatives who have worked at other campaign committees express doubts that Cole will be able to keep his hands-off policy. They think there are exceptions to every rule, and that sooner or later he’ll start playing favorites, however quietly. I’m betting they are right.