"He isnt running. And I dont think hell change his mind this time."
With that, Sheryl Wooley, longtime chief of staff and first campaign manager to Rep. Porter Goss (R.-Fla.), confirmed to me last week what was widely suspected and expected in Florida Republican circles-that after 16 years in Congress and at age 64, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Goss would not seek re-election next year. Wooleys confirmation of her bosss intentions came on the heels of reports that the 14th District lawmaker had closed his campaign account two weeks ago and donated its funds to the state Republican Party.
But as substantive as the evidence was of an exit by Goss (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 87%), no one was going to the bank on it. Two years ago, after announcing his retirement, the congressman abruptly changed his mind after 9/11 and cited the war on terrorism as the premier reason for running again. And, as Wooley noted, "the Speaker of the House, the President, and Vice President Cheney all personally urged him to stay on again." As to speculation that he scrapped retirement plans in part to preserve the 14th District (Lee-Collier Counties) from reapportionment daggers, Wooley insisted "that was not a factor." She went on to underscore that, short of another 9/11, Gosss decision to call it quits in 04 was final.
A native of Waterbury, Conn. and Yale University graduate, Goss spent more than a decade in U.S. Army Intellligence and then the CIA Clandestine Services before settling down in Lee County to launch a successful local newspaper. Following stints as mayor of Sanibel Island and Lee County commissioner, Goss launched a bid for Congress in 1988 after incumbent Republican Rep. (1982-88) Connie Mack chose to make his eventually successful bid for the Senate. In a primary battle that was run more on ties to the local community than any issue differences, Goss overcame two well-known fellow conservatives-former Rep. (1970-82) Skip Bafalis and retired General James Dozier, famed for his rescue in Italy after being kidnapped by the notorious Red Brigade.
As it was when the district was last open, the Republican primary is considered the pivotal contest to choosing the new congressman. Burt Saunders, chairman of the state senate Appropriations Committee, signaled last week that he would definitely be a candidate for the GOP nod. Once voted "Environmentalist of the Year" by the Florida Local Environment Association, the 54-year-old Saunders is considered the most moderate of what is sure to be a crowded field. At this point, his strongest probable opponent on the right appears to be State Rep. Dudley Goodlette, also 54. At least two other state legislators and two members of the Lee County Commission are being boomed for the primary next year.
Given Gosss unique background as an intelligence operative and his chairmanship of the House Intelligence panel, the Floridian is inevitably mentioned as a successor to George Tenet as CIA director. But top aide Wooley insisted that this "has not come up at all" and that the congressman was looking forward to a relaxed retirement with his children and grandchildren.
COBEY GOING, TOO
Just over a month after he was resoundingly re-elected as state Republican chairman, Bill Cobey stunned pundits and pols throughout North Carolina by resigning the party helm and declaring he would run for governor next year. "It was the right chemistry for this race, and the right thing to do," the 63-year-old Cobey told me last week. In launching his statewide bid, stalwart conservative Cobey said he would retain consultant-brothers Curt and Wes Anderson to oversee the campaign (Curt was formerly a top associate of Haley Barbour when he was Republican National Chairman; Wes was with the Fabrizio-McLaughlin polling firm) and that he estimated it would take $2 million to 3 million to win the Republican primary next May.
Once the athletic director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cobey lost bids for lieutenant governor in 1980 and the U.S. House in 1982 before finally making it to Congress two years later. Like friends and GOP classmates Tom DeLay and Dick Armey of Texas, Rep. Cobey was unabashedly conservative and in the forefront of such key causes at the time as the battles to abolish the Economic Development Administration and the Legal Services Corporation.
Swept out of the historically Democratic Raleigh-area district in the strong Democratic tide of 1986, Cobey (lifetime ACU rating: 86%) went on to serve as deputy transportation secretary and then secretary of the environment under Republican Gov. (1984-92) James G. Martin. (Before declaring for the governorship last week, Cobey revealed, he had also put to rest media speculation that he was being considered to head the Environmental Protection Administration by informing the White House he was not interested in the appointment). Four years ago, Cobey won the party chairmanship over incumbent Sam Currin following a pitched convention battle.
Under most circumstances, someone who has lost more races than he has won and who last won elective office two decades ago would have long been relegated to the political scrapheap. But not Bill Cobey, whose strong conservative following statewide remains firm over the years and has kept his name alive in political circles. When I noted that Cobey had been identified in the media with the so-called "religious right," he replied that, while a proud Christian, "I wont trade on the fact that Im a Christian" and that, as was his policy while state chairman, "I want a seat for everyone at my table."
CHANGES ON THE SCENE
Cobeys decision dramatically reshapes the gubernatorial primary and the state party organization. Until now, there have been three substantial Republicans vying for nomination to take on Democratic Gov. Mike Easley: former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a more moderate GOPer now making his third straight try for the statehouse; State Senate Republican Leader Pat Ballatine of Wilmington, who is considered more conservative than Vinroot; and insurance broker and first time candidate George Little of Southern Pines. Under Tarheel State law, should no candidate get 40% of the vote in the primary, the two top vote-getters will meet in a subsequent run-off.
Since governors of North Carolina were allowed to seek second terms in the 1970s, none have ever been defeated for re-election. But given the states numbing deficit and Easleys controversial attempts to borrow from state funds earmarked for counties and municipalities to pay it off, the history of re-elections for governor has an excellent chance of being broken next year.
More immediate is the replacement of Cobey as party chairman. A meeting of the 471-member state GOP Executive Committee will be held in Raleigh August 2 to choose a successor. On the heels of Cobeys announcement was a statement from Republican National Committeeman Ferrell Blount that he would run for chairman. A strong conservative in the Cobey mold, Bethel oil and gas company head Blount has almost always been identified with the more right-of-center candidates in nomination battles; in 1996, for example, he was a vigorous fund-raiser and campaigner for then-Texas Sen. Phil Gramm for President against Bob Dole, husband of North Carolinas favorite daughter. Interestingly, both Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Rep. Walter Jones (R.-N.C.) have endorsed Blount for chairman, as has former Sen. (1972-2002) Jesse Helms.
Blount, however, will not have the chairmanship handed to him on a platter. State Rep. David Lewis, a former 2nd District GOP chairman, has announced that, he, too, will seek the party helm next month. Lewis already has the backing of numerous legislative colleagues.