Senate Republicans spell out disciplined messages for recess

Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) staff at the Senate Republican Conference, the communications arm of the GOP leadership, organized a notably structured and disciplined August-recess communications plan in the wake of whispered criticisms of the Senate Republican messaging operation.
Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) staff at the Senate Republican Conference, the communications arm of the GOP leadership, organized a notably structured and disciplined August-recess communications plan in the wake of whispered criticisms of the Senate Republican messaging operation.

The aggressive approach comes at a time when Santorum is facing a difficult reelection fight and some Senate Republicans are questioning whether he is distracted. Republicans are also concerned about the effective rapid-response strategy of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) so-called “war room,” a bulked-up communications operation headed by Staff Director Jim Manley.
patrick g. ryan
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is now trailing his Democratic opponent by roughly 10 percentage points in polls.

 

The Republican Conference has urged GOP senators to focus on job growth during the first week of the recess — in particular to hold events highlighting new jobs that are expected to be created by the passage of the energy and transportation bills.

For the second week of the recess, senators have been told to focus on healthcare, specifically the Medicare prescription-drug benefits that senior citizens will begin receiving in January because of GOP-enacted legislation and the GOP leadership’s healthcare agenda.

During the third week, senators will communicate the need to “save and strengthen” Social Security.

The fourth week will be devoted to the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.

In the fifth week, to coincide with students’ return to schools, lawmakers are expected to inform voters that “Republicans will develop a lifelong approach to education, training and research that prepares all Americans for jobs of the future, promotes access to college and ensures accountability of federal dollars.”

“It’s structured a little more than some in the past in terms of specific thematics,” said Randy Brandt, spokesman for the conference, although the recess information packet that Republican senators received last year was also organized by specific weeks.

A House Republican leadership aide described the Senate Republicans’ recess communications strategy as “very disciplined.”

“We’re not doing it as organized as they are,” the aide admitted. “They tried to do a week-to-week plan.” The aide also argued that it is easier to organize 55 Senate offices than the more than 230 offices that House Republicans must try to corral.

Adopting a different strategy, the House GOP conference has given lawmakers a suggested menu of accomplishments to choose from to promote in their districts. The menu includes talking points related to the Patriot Act, the Energy Policy Act, gas prices, veterans benefits, small business, the No Child Left Behind Act, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, border security and efforts to reduce government waste, to name several topics. The House GOP conference’s August recess packet totals more than 50 pages.

The Senate GOP conference’s packet is roughly the same number of pages. It frames the issues in an effort to emphasize the impact they have or will have on the everyday lives of Americans.

Themes listed on the conference agenda include: “It’s your money,” “Deliver accessible, affordable and quality health care for all Americans,” “Lifelong learning for better jobs,” and “Fight poverty by empowering families in need.”

The emphasis on relating Senate Republican goals and accomplishments to the lives of ordinary citizens appears to be in line with a goal that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) voiced at a press conference earlier this year, at the height of the battle over the Senate’s filibuster rules. During that conference, Frist said Republicans would begin paying more attention to “everyday” issues.

In June, Frist created a new task force headed by Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Tent Lott (R-Miss.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) to shore up the party’s credentials on domestic issues. At the time, Senate Republican strategists believed the party had focused too much attention on social issues and not enough on topics of broad public concern.

When Frist acted, Senate and House Republicans had just suffered a spate of negative publicity for intervening in the Terri Schiavo case. Frist and Santorum were vocal participants in the debate over whether the Senate should address a state court’s decision to withdraw Schiavo’s life support.

Some GOP aides viewed Frist’s decision to elevate Gregg, Lott and Coleman to lead a message task force on domestic issues as a recognition that the Senate Republican Conference needed help communicating the GOP agenda and the party’s legislative accomplishments.

Frist’s action also seemed to bolster Lott, a Santorum rival. Santorum plans to run for assistant majority leader at the end of the current Congress, when Frist steps down from the top post. But Lott may also have his eye on the No. 2 leadership post, according to several GOP aides.

Several senior GOP Senate aides said they believe that Santorum may be distracted by a tough race for reelection. Right now, Santorum is trailing his Democratic opponent by roughly 10 percentage points in polls.

One senior GOP Senate aide said that it is difficult for Santorum to be as effective a leader as he has been in the past because “of his personal political situation.”

“Everybody realizes that a member’s first duty is to get reelected, so there’s a lot of slack being cut for him,” the aide said. “I don’t think anyone begrudges him paying attention to his home garden.”

Whatever sniping has taken place over the way the conference has been run, the aide said, is not necessarily directed at Santorum. The aide added that several Senate Republicans are concerned about Reid’s war room and question whether Democrats are more organized because their message operation is run primarily out of Reid’s office, whereas authority over Republican message is more diffuse.