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Boehner, Cole split on Renzi

On Monday, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), head of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), broke from his conference’s leadership to support outgoing Rep. Rick Renzi (Ariz.). Renzi, like so many of his Republican colleagues, is facing indictments for extortion, fraud and money-laundering.

GOP Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) is cognizant that corruption was a major contributing factor to Republicans' 2006 losses, and consequently wants Renzi — yet another reminder of Republican corruption — excised from his conference as soon as possible. Unfortunately for Boehner, Renzi wants to stick around through the end of his term. And Cole — the man in charge of getting Republicans elected in 2008 — has been inexplicably sanguine about Renzi's refusal to slink away, saying: “I guess I believe in the American legal system. You’re allowed to go argue your case. I don’t tell people that they ought to resign.”

Boehner must be bashing his head against a wall in frustration. Cole’s political tone-deafness has been a concern of Boehner’s for some time. The NRCC has suffered from abysmal recruitment, anemic fundraising, a near-record number of retirements, and an apparent embezzlement scandal stemming from a lack of outside audits of committee finances. Yet Cole seems untroubled.

Boehner’s frustrations became public in September 2007, when he tried to fire several top Cole aides at the committee.

Cole prevailed, reportedly threatening to resign if his staffers were ousted. Today, it’s likely Boehner wishes he would’ve taken Cole up on that offer.

D.C. rumors now point to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R) district in north-central Illinois as ground zero in this power struggle. Republicans are fighting to hold a district in which President George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by 55-44. And Cole’s job now appears dependent on his party’s ability to retain the seat.

His task is shockingly difficult. Jim Oberweis is a perennial self-funding candidate who finally struck gold after three unsuccessful primary bids. His primary opponent is so furious at what he calls “lies” against him that he's urging his supporters to sit the special election out. Remarkably, the district saw more Democratic voters vote in the primary than Republicans. And the race is shaping up as a low-level proxy battle between Barack Obama and John McCain, as both have lent their hands to their respective parties’ candidates.

A loss of the Republican Speaker’s solidly conservative former seat, despite McCain’s personal efforts, would be an all-around humiliation for the GOP. Couple that with the emptying of the NRCC’s meager coffers on the race — they've spent $1 million at latest count — and the NRCC has an unmitigated disaster on its hands.

A mid-cycle change in top leadership at the NRCC, as dramatic a gesture as it might be, could prove little more than salve for Boehner’s fury. It's folly to think Republicans could, at this late date, find anyone who could improve GOP chances. It really isn’t Cole’s fault the district’s Republican voters chose the least electable of the lot, or that the Democratic presidential field far outclasses the Republican one, or that the public is sick of Republicans and demanding change. Only the dumbest potential Republican recruit would choose to run in today’s political environment, and few donors like to waste their cash on a party with no hope of recapturing the majority.

Then again, Cole did embrace the ethically and legally compromised Renzi on Monday rather than work with leadership to push him out, something that can’t be written off as anything less than sheer stupidity.

That may be rationalization enough for Boehner to pull the trigger.

(Disclosure: Daily Kos has endorsed and fundraised for Bill Foster’s campaign.)

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .