House GOP senses shift in political winds

House Republicans say they are growing more optimistic about their chances this November after a politically disastrous stretch and repeated fumbles that fomented discord within the party.

The newfound optimism is grounded in what Republicans say is a shift in the political winds — and their fundraising prowess.

In preparation for midterm elections, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has been tapped to helm the Battleground program, the GOP’s final fundraising push of the 2006 election cycle.

Cantor, the chief deputy to Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), is tasked with raising $17.5 million, the GOP’s target for the program.

National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) named Cantor as chairman for the final fundraising drive during yesterday’s regular weekly House GOP meeting.

The official launch of the Battleground program coincides with an improving mood within the Republican Conference, which some leaders have taken as a sign that the GOP will fare well this fall.

“We have to raise money to sustain and to win,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told a group of reporters after the conference meeting. “People are anteing up, and we’re looking forward to increasing our majority next year.”

This is the first time in recent history that a senior Republican lawmaker has even discussed the possibility of increasing the GOP majority in the House this election cycle. Many Republicans have said they would be extremely pleased if they retain control of the lower chamber.

Congressional Democrats are quick to point out that they have outraised their GOP counterparts and believe that any optimism Republicans are expressing is unfounded.

During the House Republicans’ meeting, Reynolds implored members to raise money for their colleagues and said the Battleground program is crucial in helping Republicans retain their majority. He applauded Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) in particular for working so hard to hold a competitive district.

Cantor will be assisted in his fundraising efforts by seven deputies: Reps. Patrick McHenry (N.C.), Adam Putnam (Fla.), John Shimkus (Ill.), Todd Tiahrt (Kan.), Cathy McMorris (Wash.), John Mica (Fla.) and Lamar Smith (Texas).

Members have varying targets based on their seniority in the conference, from the lowest level of $70,000 to the top level for leaders and A-level committee chairmen of $550,000, said Carl Forti, the communications director for the NRCC.

The money goes directly to the NRCC, GOP aides said, and members can either write checks directly from their own campaigns accounts or ask individual donors and political action committees to write checks to the campaign committee in their name.

Hastert, Blunt and Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered Cantor checks worth $150,000, $500,000 and $550,000, respectively, during yesterday’s conference meeting to get the fundraising drive off to a good start.

Although the final fundraising deadline for the Battleground program is set for Oct. 11, Cantor warned members yesterday not to get into “a deadline mentality” and encouraged them to contribute as early as possible so that the NRCC will have more freedom to spread the money around.

Republicans in the House launched their Battleground effort in the wake of news events that have been favorable to the GOP.

The California special congressional election last month was a tremendous relief for Republicans in the House, even though many had dismissed its significance on the eve of that election. It came the same week that insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in Iraq and coincided with an extension of tax cuts on dividends and capital gains.

This week, Republicans crowed about new figures showing that the budget deficit is smaller than had been anticipated.

While Republican leaders have had a hard time corralling their members on a number of votes this year, leaders and rank-and-file members have said passing the budget resolution through the House was the biggest hurdle and significantly eased the way for all of the spending bills, allowing members to complete their most basic duty on Capitol Hill.

“Look, it’s a competitive environment for Republicans,” Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said earlier this week. But the former NRCC chairman said recent news was finally starting to give Republicans a boost.

“Katrina put us in the basement, and we stayed there,” Rep. Tom Feeney said, but the Florida Republican said momentum had turned back in their favor.

Regardless of how Republicans feel now, a Democratic campaign spokesman said it was a long way between now and November, and he welcomed the GOP exuberance.

“I hope they think they have the momentum up until Election Day,” said Bill Burton, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The fact of the matter is that they have not spent a lot of time at all in this Congress focused on issues that people care about.”

For example, Burton said, Republicans have made a major issue out of immigration this campaign season, even though Congress has not yet approved a reform bill.

“They’re waging a single-issue campaign on an issue they don’t have any accomplishments on,” Burton said.

Burton also said it is one thing to feel relief and express a sense of momentum in Washington but it is another to show momentum in each of the competitive districts.

“If they’re so confident, let’s see what their polling says,” Burton said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a former House member, agreed that Republicans are in trouble. He recently told columnist Robert Novak that GOP leaders are misreading the pulse of voters and could lose both chambers of Congress this year.

Recent news has not all been good for House Republicans. They did get a boost in Texas last month when the Supreme Court upheld all but one of the seats in its review of that state’s congressional map. But to the delight of Democrats, a Texas judge ruled that former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) must remain on the ballot. The ruling, which has been appealed, could help Democrats win DeLay’s seat in November.

In addition, a divide on spending issues continues within the party, simmering since internal fights on the lobbying reform bill, the budget and a series of appropriations bills.

That debate has made its way to the primary battlefield, where conservative candidates are repeatedly squaring off against centrist Republicans. In many of those fights, the conservative Club for Growth has become increasingly hostile toward some centrist Republican candidates, roiling some senior GOP lawmakers.

“Club for Growth clearly could care less about the Republican Party,” Davis said.

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