House Republicans lost three recent elections when customary campaign themes failed to sway voters and their candidates could not overcome the "negative perception of the national party," according to an internal review that underscores the potential for widespread losses this fall.
GOP candidates on the ballot in November must show "deep empathy towards the voters" and rely on local rather than national issues, according to the report, ordered by party leaders after the loss of formerly safe seats in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi that stunned the rank and file.
House Republicans on Thursday reviewed the defeats as Democrats signaled an intention to spend heavily in three competitive seats in New York, Oregon and Colorado. Officials said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had reserved a combined $4 million worth of television advertising time.
The disclosure seemed designed to inflict a psychological blow on Republicans, since the Democratic organization has yet to spend any of the money. But the move also serves as a reminder of the Democrats' enormous financial advantage over Republicans little more than four months before elections with all 435 House seats on the ballot. The National Republican Congressional Committee had $6.7 million in its bank account at the end of May, while the Democrats reported $47.2 million.
While defeats in special elections in Illinois and Louisiana troubled Republicans, the loss of a Mississippi House seat on May 13 led to appointment of a six-member group to review the NRCC's performance. Key lawmakers met Thursday to review the findings, some of which were obtained by The Associated Press.
While the review said the national political environment was largely to blame for the losses, it also said Republican candidates themselves were less than optimal and their campaigns were flawed.
The NRCC also came in for its share of criticism. As is customary, the Republican campaign committee paid for television and other campaign activities in each race through independent organizations that allow unlimited expenditures. The report cited as one of the shortcomings an apparent lack of communication among outside campaign specialists hired to provide television advertising and direct mail.
Several officials said that in response, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, had decided to add a well-known GOP campaign strategist, John Hishta, to a small team that will be responsible for much of the party-paid advertising and mass mailings in the fall. Boehner informed Rep. Tom Cole, who heads the campaign committee, of his decision, according to Republican officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because there has been no public announcement.
Republicans controlled the House for 12 years until the midterm elections in 2006.
Democrats currently hold a majority of 235-199, with one vacancy. Speaking privately, numerous Republicans have long conceded they are well on their way to additional, possibly significant losses in November, given President Bush's low approval ratings, opposition to the war in Iraq and polls that show a large majority of Americans wanting change.
Traditional messages not working
Karen Hanretty, communications director for the NRCC, reacted to the private report by acknowledging the difficulties confronting her party.
"This is a challenging environment," she said. "Any Republican running for office has to run basically on an independent platform, localize the race and not take anything for granted. There are no safe Republican seats in this election."
The report concluded that winning any of the three special elections would have been "extremely difficult given the nature of the political environment and the candidates involved.
"None of the candidates nor their allies successfully established themselves and their local brand in contrast to the negative perception of the national GOP," the report said.
It added that traditional Republican messages "essentially did not work," and that framing the elections as a choice between a traditional Republican and a traditional Democrat failed.
It also said Democratic candidates accurately reflected the views of the districts, including newly elected Reps. Don Cazayoux in Louisiana and Travis Childers in Mississippi, both of whom stressed conservative views. Rep. Bill Foster was the winner in Illinois.
The DCCC has reserved $2.1 million for advertising for a seat in New York City in which Republican Rep. Vito Fossella intends to retire. Fossella, who is married with children, recently acknowledged fathering a child out of wedlock.
Democrats also said they will spend $1.2 million in the Portland, Ore., area, hoping to hold the seat of Democratic Rep. Darlene Hooley, who is retiring.
The third target is the seat held by Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado, where Democrats said they had reserved nearly $700,000 in advertising time.