With a massive field of vulnerable House incumbents to defend and limited resources to go around, Republicans are readying for a painful round of political triage — deciding which lawmakers are worth trying to rescue, and which ones need to be cut loose to fend for themselves in November.
GOP officials say as many as 45 Republican-held seats are at serious risk, making it impossible to salvage each one in the costly scramble to protect the party’s 23-seat majority— especially those members who have waged sluggish campaigns and posted lackluster fundraising totals.
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“This is the time of year when tough decisions have to be made,” said Ken Spain, a longtime former top National Republican Congressional Committee staffer. “There are likely going to be a number of unhappy Republican members of Congress in the coming weeks.”
Behind the scenes, senior party strategists have begun polling to determine which incumbents may be beyond saving. Among those most in jeopardy of getting cut off, they say, are Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, Pennsylvania Rep. Keith Rothfus, and Iowa Rep. Rod Blum, all of whom are precariously positioned in their districts.
The party has to date reserved millions of dollars of future advertising time to buttress Comstock and Rothfus. Yet those funds are not guaranteed — they still might be diverted to other incumbents viewed as more likely to win in the fall.
“At this point in the cycle with a field this large, difficult choices will have to be made,” said Brian Walsh, a former senior House GOP campaign official who now oversees the pro-Trump America First Action super PAC, which is slated to spend millions on congressional races.
“Such is the world we live in now,” Walsh added.
The anxiety is already rising among lawmakers and their allies. Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, an imperiled suburban congressman whom Democrats are spending heavily to defeat, has recently complained to allies that the national committee hasn’t done enough to help him in his reelection bid, according to four people familiar with the conversations.
In another instance of the angst, Northern Virginia-based Republican donor Bobbie Kilberg pressed senior party officials at a Mitt Romney-hosted policy summit in Utah this summer on why Congressional Leadership Fund, the principal House GOP-aligned super PAC, wasn’t doing more to help Comstock. The group isn’t planning to air any TV ads in support of the congresswoman — and some people close to the organization view her race as essentially unwinnable.
“It’s personally upsetting to me,” said Kilberg, a Comstock friend and financial backer. “The fact that CLF has not supported Barbara — and has not indicated they will do so — I find very disappointing.”
Kilberg, who’s planning to host a fundraiser for Comstock this fall, said she had spoken with the congresswoman about the super PAC’s absence from her race.
“It doesn’t take much to read between the tea leaves to know that she’s disappointed about it,” said Kilberg. “How could she not be?”
Those most at risk of getting cut off, according to party officials, are the lawmakers who’ve refused to heed repeated warnings about the treacherous conditions of this year’s election cycle.
During a House GOP Conference meeting this spring, NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers told members not to expect the party to bail them out later in the campaign if they failed to pull their weight. He pointed out that the party had already waged a costly and ultimately unsuccessful effort to rescue an underperforming candidate in a Pennsylvania special election.
As proof of that approach, the House GOP campaign arm has barely budged despite pleas for additional financial support from endangered Iowa Rep. David Young and his campaign team — at least partly because they view him as a sluggish campaigner, said two senior Republicans familiar with the party’s deliberations.
“The NRCC isn’t going to be able to help those who haven’t helped themselves,” said former Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Phil English, who was involved with the committee during his House tenure. “These are very Darwinian decisions. It means selection of the fittest.”
English recalled the tough choice Republican leaders faced with former Indiana Rep. John Hostettler, a chronically underfunded campaigner who ultimately lost his seat in 2006.
“In a year when there is a big advantage to one side over the other, the side with the limited resources has to be particularly strategic — and that means being dispassionate and not emotional as to how they are making decisions,” said English. “This is a challenge, and a judgement call that I think people at the NRCC always dread.”
Some Republican strategists, however, contend that the party has been flat-footed and failed at an early stage to take seriously enough the possibility that seats typically regarded as safer could be in jeopardy as the election approached. As a result, they say, the party is now scrambling to divert resources from swing districts in order to protect traditionally redder ones.
The concern rose to the forefront during a January NRCC presentation for top congressional aides. Ryan Carney, the chief of staff to Rep. Tom MacArthur, a moderate Republican running in a swing New Jersey district, pointedly asked party officials how they were assessing the competitiveness of open seats that had been vacated by Republican incumbents.
Those present perceived Carney as implying that the committee might be underestimating the potential vulnerability of some seats – and that lawmakers like his boss could be the ones paying the price for it later on.
For party leaders, the decision to cut off a lawmaker from party resources is politically and emotionally fraught. Several weeks before the disastrous 2010 election, Democratic officials pulled financial support for a slate of members whose reelection prospects were dire, including then-Ohio Rep. Steve Driehaus.
Driehaus, who took a number of challenging votes for party leadership despite occupying a swing district, lashed out in response. He recorded a web video in which he accused the House Democratic campaign committee of “walking away” from him, and launched a fundraising website in which he charged that the organization had cut off loyal lawmakers who’d pushed for party causes and diverted those dollars to “Democrats who didn’t have the guts to take the tough votes.”
In an interview this week, Driehaus, who spent nearly a decade in the state legislature before being elected to Congress, recalled the initial shock of discovering that the Democratic campaign arm was freezing him out. Driehaus, who ultimately lost reelection that year, said he tried to turn the predicament to his advantage by rallying donors to side.
“It’s disappointing at first,” he said. “We made lemonade out of lemons.”