NRCC recruits face added scrutiny after string of losses

The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent months promoting its slate of upstart House candidates, but recent primaries have seen several of its favorites suffer embarrassing losses.

Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward (R) became the fourth NRCC recruit to lose his primary this cycle when he dropped the May 25 GOP contest in Idaho’s first congressional district to state Rep. Raul Labrador.

Ward was one of the committee’s top prospects but he failed to overcome a stream of damaging revelations that varied from him interning for a Democratic state lawmaker to giving a speech that borrowed liberally from then-Senate candidate Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPolitical map shifts on Trump The lazy political writing of 'SNL' The 'October Surprise' our troops weren't counting on MORE’s famous address to the 2004 Democratic convention.

Ward lost to Labrador by close to 10 points.

Democrats believe that Tennessee House candidate Stephen FincherStephen FincherRep. Fincher to retire Export-Import Bank takes step toward renewal Transportation deal includes Ex-Im renewal MORE, who’s running for the GOP nod in the race for retiring Rep. John Tanner’s (D-Tenn.) seat, will be the next highly touted NRCC candidate to fall in a primary.

He faces Dr. Ron Kirkland and Shelby County Commissioner George Flinn in the Aug. 2 primary.

Fincher has recently been under a steady drip of bad press.

There have been reports he received some $2.5 million in federal farm subsidies even though he attacks government spending, his campaign misspelled Tennessee in a recent mailer and used virtually the same TV ad as a candidate for Alabama agriculture commissioner. Moreover, the Nashville Post discovered he voted in three Democratic primaries in the last eight years.

Any of these stories alone wouldn’t be considered enough to derail a promising candidacy, but in the context of what happened to Ward and others it could be a sign of trouble.
Fincher’s campaign brushed aside the suggestion he was losing momentum.

“We like where we’re at,” Matt McCullough, a spokesman for Fincher, said in an e-mail. “Stephen leads in the polls, and has won every straw poll in the district with at least 60 percent of the vote.

“We look forward to an aggressive two months leading up to the primary, and we’re well-positioned to beat [Democrat] Roy Herron in November.”

McCullough said the campaign had raised a total of $1.3 million, which means it's on pace this quarter to match its $300,000-plus hauls from previous fundraising periods.

Kirkland had more than $780,000 banked last quarter while Flinn had slightly less than $125,000.

The NRCC has used its “Young Guns” program to train and promote more than 100 upstart candidates who it viewed as best capable of recapturing the seats necessary to restore a GOP majority in the House. But some observers are now questioning whether the program places an undue burden on rookie candidates.

Fincher, for example, had never sought public office, fundraised for a candidate or been an activist. In fact, he doesn’t even have a college degree. Yet the NRCC heavily promoted the 37-year-old farmer/gospel singer because he had an attractive backstory and was good on the stump.

A Washington-based Republican strategist disputed the suggestion the NRCC was putting added pressure on its candidates. The strategist said the candidates who lost their primaries made their own mistakes, which can’t be blamed on the committee.

“The vast majority of NRCC candidates are going to win,” the strategist said on background in order to speak candidly. “Every frontrunner faces higher scrutiny than the also-rans.”

Meanwhile in Tennessee, Fincher’s rivals have their problems. Kirkland has voted in four Democratic primaries and donated money to Tanner in 2000 and 2004, Federal Election Commission records show.

And Flinn has had legal trouble. He’s been accused of trying to cover up a lawsuit from a home renovation contractor who claimed he wasn’t paid for his work.

"Because Fincher has so little baggage these guys grab on to these little, petty things," the strategist said.

Still, the strategist admitted Fincher’s acceptance of millions in farm subsidies could be a weakness in the primary. “That’s going to be an issue for Stephen but that pales in comparison to what he’s got on Kirkland and Flinn."