Short-Changed Conservatives

At a press breakfast Friday (October 24th) hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, a colleague of mine was discussing recent reports that the National Republican Congressional Committee had withdrawn television ads from the districts of several incumbent GOP House Members. The obvious case was that of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.), who had been under fire for her use of the word “anti-American” in a discussion of Barack Obama’s liberal views with MSNBC-TV’s Chris Matthews.

“Well, the NRCC probably doesn’t have the money and they have to cut back on some members,” I noted, citing National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole ‘s (R.-Okla.) oft-stated explanation to me that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has a 4-to-1 spending advantage over his group.

“Yeah, but their timing and who they’re cutting back from doesn’t exactly send a message of confidence!” shot back my colleague, himself a veteran political reporter now making his predictions on the outcome of House and Senate races November 4th.

There was no room for argument. Coming less than two weeks before the election, the withdrawal of NRCC-funded TV ads for GOP lawmakers essentially says to contributors: “They’re down and they’re on their own.”

In just this week, the word has come that this has been the fate of several embattled lawmakers. Twenty-four hours after learning of the pull-out from Bachmann’s district, I also had confirmed from spokeswoman Karen Hanretty that the NRCC deployed an “exit strategy” in the districts of Republican Reps. Marilyn Musgrave (Col.) and Tom Feeney (Fla.). Like Bachmann. both are in the political fights of their life and both are conservative swashbucklers of long-standing: Musgrave is one of the premier cultural conservatives in the House and Feeney, who gained national attention as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives during the contested election of 2000, founded the House Conservative Fund (HCF) in Congress.

What is more startling than the pulling of the ads in the districts of all three is who made the decision and how it was done. In separate conversations, both Chairman Cole and the NRCC’s Hanretty told me that the pullout was decided on not by the chairman himself or House Members on the NRCC board but — are you ready for this — an “IE [for “Independent Expenditure”] Unit” of private consultants who make the decisions outside the NRCC offices.

IE Unit? No oversight by Cole and Company? You got it. In fact, in confirming that the NRCC was out of the districts of Musgrave and Feeney, Hanretty e-mailed me: “The IE Unit [Italics added] pulled reserved time in both districts.”

When Cole explained to me that the decision on Bachmann had nothing to do with her remarks on Matthews’ program and that he himself had given her substantial donations from his political action committee (“We did not cut and run on Michele”), he also explained that the decision on pulling back NRCC-reserved ads came from this “IE Unit.”

Because of the complex campaign finance laws (“and they are stupid!” he added), in part crafted by John McCain and signed into law by George W. Bush, Cole noted, a separate body from the NRCC has to make the decisions on where to invest funding and how much to do it with.

If that leaves you bewildered, get this:

When I asked who they are specifically, the Oklahoman explained: “They are a group of private political consultants, some of them very conservative. And they work out of a building separate from our headquarters.”

Swell. Can you tell me who they are, I asked?

“No, I’m not going to do that,” Cole said with a chuckle, “I’m sure you know a lot of them. Maybe after the election I’ll tell you. But right now, I don’t want to subject them to a lot of harassment.” (As if they didn’t deserve harassment after making decisions like that and sending out a very negative message about the re-election chances of Bachman, Feeney, and Musgrave, I thought).

So let’s get this straight: decisions on where and how much NRCC money is deployed are made not by the committee or its chairman or staff but by a “unit” of political consultants who operate outside the realm of the committee and may very well have their own interests in certain candidates who do get money.

And we won’t know who they are until after the election?

“Look, I understand your frustration,” said Cole, “And I think the law is ridiculous. But remember when [New York Rep. Tom] Reynolds was chairman in the last cycle and was on a televised interview when they showed him a commercial from the NRCC? He looked nervous and bewildered because he had never seen the ad before. It was produced by the IE Unit.”

At this point, it started to sound familiar. In ’06, I spoke to then-NRCC spokesman Carl Forti about reports that the committee was getting involved before the primary in the district of retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe (R.-Ariz) on behalf of a more moderate candidate against conservative Randy Graf (who had scored well against Kolbe two years before and ran on a hard-line anti-illegal immigration platform).

Forti explained to me that this decision was not made by then-Chairman Reynolds or his staff but an “independent group” necessitated by the campaign finance law. (Graf and the other candidates all vowed not to support the candidate backed by the NRCC; Graf won the primary but lost the general election).

If responding to a complaint by Family Research Council head Tony Perkins about the practice of defending certain candidates late in the game, Karen Hanretty went on to explain that the IE unit was funding other candidates who were pro-life — not that impressive an explanation, as Republicans are increasingly anti-abortion.

Accepting that the “exit strategy” in districts of Musgrave, Bachmann, and Feeney was not anything against conservatives and truly the work of “lone wolf” operatives required by law, is it too much to ask who they are and what clients are paying them?