Why Republicans turn on their own
By: Alex Isenstadt
March 13, 2014 03:12 PM EDT
First it happened to Mark Sanford.
Running in a high-profile special congressional election, the former South Carolina governor was blindsided by news that the National Republican Congressional Committee had decided to abandon his candidacy just days before voters cast their ballots.
Last week, it was Florida GOP candidate David Jolly’s turn. National GOP operatives provided to POLITICO a detailed account of how the former lobbyist was waging a chaotic, chronically undisciplined campaign for a St. Petersburg-area congressional seat.
Both candidates would hold on to win, exploiting a political environment that’s tilted decidedly in the Republican Party’s favor. But the victories were bittersweet. Sanford and Jolly would be making the trek to Washington after having been pilloried by anonymous party operatives who, they thought, were on their side. Nevertheless, it’s not in either pol’s self-interest to dwell on the campaign: There is more to gain — in potential committee assignments, or help from the party in future campaigns — by getting along with GOP higher-ups.
The clashes are striking because national Republicans rarely openly criticize their own candidates, especially so soon before consequential elections. But national Republicans increasingly feel the need to adopt a get-tough approach. Nearly six years removed from the presidency and often under assault from outside-the-Beltway conservatives, establishment GOP figures are searching out new ways to exert influence over unruly candidates. Cross them, and there’s a good chance the candidate won’t like what results.
“It’s indicative of a party without a centralized hierarchy. We didn’t have these problems in 2002 or 2004. When the party has the presidency, it’s a lot easier to get people to align. It’s easier to institute sway,” said Chris LaCivita, a longtime party operative and former top official at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
On MSNBC Wednesday morning, moderator Chuck Todd peppered National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden with questions about a POLITICO story that ran days before the election detailing the party’s complaints about Jolly’s campaign.
“Will you guys be able to kiss and make up?” he asked.
Yes, Walden said.
Todd then pressed Walden on the criticisms of Jolly in the story.
“Chuck, let’s not litigate the past, let’s look at what happened here on Election Day. Because that’s really the subject, isn’t it? The subject is who won,” Walden said.
NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said, “We are excited to welcome David Jolly to Congress and will continue to work closely with him to keep this seat in Republican hands.”
Both Sanford and Jolly both fell short of what party strategists expected of them. Sanford’s problems stemmed from revelations that he’d been sued by his ex-wife for allegedly trespassing at her house. Sanford, some complained, hadn’t given the NRCC a heads-up before the story broke.
“This is an unfortunate situation,” one GOP operative said at this time. “But this is what happens when candidates aren’t honest and withhold information.”
There was an array of complaints about Jolly: He didn’t raise enough money. Top aides were located hundreds of miles away from his district in the state capital. His ads were poorly made. The NRCC tried to intervene, sending four staffers down to the St. Petersburg-area district.
Among Washington Republicans, the last-minute criticism of Jolly remains a sensitive subject. With the committee primed to spend tens of millions of dollars in races across the country, some say it’s only natural to expect them to be hard-liners every now and then.
“If you’re the NRCC or Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and there’s millions of dollars and a media narrative at stake, you are naturally going to be highly concerned about how the campaign is run, and you should be,” said Andy Sere, a Republican strategist.
Four years ago, during the first midterm of President Barack Obama’s tenure, Republicans found themselves in a similarly friendly national environment. But many of their neophyte candidates — encouraged to run because of the unpopularity of the national health care law — lacked the political skills to win hard-fought races. Republicans achieved sweeping gains in the House, but fell short in their bid to retake the Senate.
In Senate and House races this year, Republicans say they’ve absorbed lessons from 2010 and are taking a particular interest in how their top candidates are waging races, hoping to ensure that no opportunities are squandered.
With their party occupying the Oval Office, Democrats have been far more unified with their candidates than Republicans; the national party is much more involved in directing individual campaigns, and disagreements over strategy or executions are kept amongst themselves. Operatives from the DCCC traveled down to South Carolina to help Elizabeth Colbert Busch run her campaign.
Jolly’s opponent in Florida, former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, had similar help from DCCC officials. Vice President Joe Biden raised money for her. And Sink’s campaign manager, Ashley Walker, ran Obama’s 2012 campaign in the state.
Now, Jolly and national Republicans will have to navigate the awkwardness of their eleventh-hour falling out. Sanford encountered the same situation last year, and by all appearances chose to get over it and keep any ill will to himself.
“The thing about Sanford is, he isn’t a grudge-holder,” said Scott English, a longtime former Sanford chief of staff.
Since he was sworn in in May, Sanford has mostly stayed out of the national spotlight, focusing on local issues such as flood insurance legislation. In some corners, there’s been speculation that he’s quietly angling to wage a bid for state office. In February, The Charleston Post and Courier published an article headlined, “Will there be a Gov. Sanford again?”
Some of Sanford’s friends believe the NRCC’s decision to stop spending money in the race actually helped him win. Distance from the Washington establishment is more of a help than a hindrance with many GOP voters, they reason.
“It really energized Republicans in South Carolina,” English said. “From my perspective, when the national party got out, it created a dynamic where GOP activists from around the state converged on the 1st District to campaign for Sanford.”
English, however, says he’s urged Sanford not to make a contribution to the NRCC — something that’s expected of nearly all House GOP members. So far, according to campaign filings, the congressman has not done so.
“He doesn’t owe them a damn thing,” English said.
A Sanford spokesman declined to comment.
Jolly has his own incentives to move past the campaign and make amends with party leadership. Doing so could help him secure a seat on a plum committee, which every newly elected House member wants but might be particularly important in Jolly’s case. He is succeeding the late GOP Rep. Bill Young, his onetime boss, who for decades used his perch on the Appropriations panel to dole out federal dollars to his district.
Jolly doesn’t seem eager to discuss the arrangement. When a POLITICO reporter reached him via cellphone and introduced himself to the congressman-elect Wednesday, Jolly hung up. A follow-up text message wasn’t returned. A Jolly spokeswoman, meanwhile, didn’t respond to an email.
Republican leaders, for their part, seem ready to get on board with Jolly.
During the campaign, Jolly refused to answer several times when asked if he would support Boehner as speaker — a decision that angered Boehner’s staff at the time. (Boehner aides insist the speaker himself wasn’t upset about it.) Shortly before the election, Jolly clarified that he did, indeed, support the Ohio Republican.
For Boehner, apparently, all is well.
After he won Tuesday night, Jolly received a congratulatory phone call from the speaker.