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Boehner's 'Hopeful' Outlook, GOP's Painful Reality

By Reid Wilson

In a presentation to his Republican caucus Wednesday, House Minority Leader John Boehner told members of Congress the GOP should stay optimistic about the 2008 elections, thanks to several factors the party thinks work in their favor. But along with opportunities Boehner said the party faces, there are severe hurdles Republicans have yet to overcome.


The key to winning, Boehner told his colleagues, is to take care of those who are already in Congress, by taking challengers and preparation seriously; to support the party as a whole, by meeting fundraising targets; and to stay consistently on message by associating Democrats with a "broken Washington" and promising an agenda focused on health care, energy and tax cuts.


Too, Republicans think Barack Obama, should he be the Democratic nominee, will be an asset to their party. "Remember, it will be clear that Obama's appeal is limited to arugula-eating college professors, hard-core liberal Democrats, and residents of Nancy Pelosi's Congressional District," the presentation says.

The National Republican Congressional Committee this week began using Obama's image to attack Democratic special election candidates in Mississippi and Louisiana, where polls show district residents view the Illinois Senator unfavorably by about a two-to-one margin. In response, one of those candidates, Travis Childers in Mississippi, has sought to distance himself from Obama.


But while Obama looks like the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination, the fact that he has not done so yet remains a source of glee for Republicans. Members saw the presentation as "hopeful," said Illinois Republican Peter Roskam, "particularly in light of the fratricidal tendencies that you're seeing on the Democratic side with their nomination process, and the appeal of Senator McCain at the top of the ticket."


Republicans still face big challenges in the race not only to win back control of the House, but perhaps more pressingly to ensure that their losses are limited. Boehner pointed out that President Bush has raised more than $16 million for House GOP candidates this cycle, but Bush's approval rating remains stuck in the mud, at just 30.8% in the latest RCP Average. "It was a clear-eyed view. [Boehner] was not pumping sunshine," Roskam said.


Fundraising has also been a challenge. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reported more than $44 million in the bank at the end of March, while Republicans had nearly $7.2 million on hand. To put that in perspective, Democrats have a more than six-to-one cash on hand advantage; after March 2006, the margin between the two committees was much smaller, as Republicans had $24.5 million in the bank, just $1.5 million more than Democrats. The disparity this year comes after the NRCC benefited from a major fundraising dinner featuring President Bush, in March, that brought in $8.6 million in pledges and contributions.


Republicans will hold another dinner featuring the President in June. NRCC chairman Tom Cole announced Wednesday that Republican Study Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling, of Texas, would head up the committee's efforts to raise $7 million for the evening, aided by fellow Texan Pete Sessions and twenty-seven captains, who will be tasked with raising money from fellow members.


The difficulty has not only come from donors unwilling to give to the national party, but also a lack of contributions from Republican members of Congress. Few members have paid their biannual dues, a source of frustration for Boehner, who yelled at members to get off their "dead asses" at a February caucus meeting. Boehner took the opportunity to remind members not only to pay their NRCC dues but to meet other fundraising goals and to participate in groups that work as money machines for challenger candidates.

Boehner "laid out opportunities of where we can win, if the message is able to get out there," California Republican Kevin McCarthy said. But the call for donations is nothing new. "He always says that," McCarthy added. "Across the nation, the largest donors to the NRCC is really the members, because they're the only ones who can give unlimited amounts."


Boehner's presentation was a mix of positive reinforcement and implicit warnings. The leader pledged to "raise every dollar I can to help beat Democrats" and to travel to as many districts as possible to help out GOP candidates. But "I will hold you accountable to the team," one bullet point read ominously.


The GOP's constant refrain in 2008 has been that the ball is on their side of the field; sixty-two Democrats represent districts President Bush won in 2004 or 2000. But at first glance, only about a quarter of those Democrats will find themselves in serious jeopardy in November. Republican insiders maintain they can compete in thirty of those districts.


Boehner's presentation pointed to twenty-one Democratic freshmen in Bush-backing districts as perhaps the most vulnerable, though at least seven of those freshmen have yet to attract strong challengers. While President Bush carried 256 districts in 2000, Boehner's presentation said McCain "will match or beat that" number. "That gives you at least a playing field you can play on," said McCarthy, one of the founders of a program called Young Guns that is actively recruiting candidates to take on Democratic candidates. "So why wouldn't you be optimistic and say, 'Let's go out and play'?"


National Republicans remain in a deep hole, but things can change quickly, Roskam noted. There remains the chance of a major Democratic slip, and if so, the GOP needs to be in a position to take advantage. "This is a very unpredictable environment that we're in," Roskam said. "What Boehner was communicating was, 'Be ready, be prepared, work hard.'"


If those opportunities do not present themselves, though, the party could be in for yet another difficult year at the ballot box. Still, playing defense becomes a lot easier when the party has money to compete and is stocked with incumbents who are paying attention. Boehner lost his title of Majority Leader after several incumbents were either underfunded or ill-prepared for the challenges they faced. This year, he wants to make sure his new minority doesn't shrink more than it has to.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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