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With Bush leaving and Democrats rising, Norquist turns to Congress
Grover Norquist helped bring down one longtime House Republican this year. He's already campaigning against another. Their sin? Breaking Norquist's no-tax-increases pledge.
Personally inserting himself into House races is a new role for the anti-tax crusader, who for all his work in Washington hadn't previously endorsed a congressional candidate for about a decade.
He's known best in Washington circles for insisting Republicans take his pledge not to support any legislation that raises taxes. As the leader of a group called Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), he's managed to get all but nearly two-dozen GOP members to sign it. His group's weekly breakfasts regularly draw Republican elites, including former Bush adviser Karl Rove and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
But the stakes on Capitol Hill have changed. Democrats are now in charge of both chambers, Republicans are not faring as well in fundraising and all signs suggest a Democrat has a strong chance of winning the White House.
Norquist has had to adjust his tactics. This year Norquist, along with the tax-cutting Club for Growth, attacked nine-term Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) for voting in favor of energy and farm bills that included tax increases. Gilchrest lost in a primary to Andy Harris, a state senator who said he intends to keep the pledge.
Consider that a warning shot. Norquist could be just getting started.
"Because the Democrats have a shot at the presidency, it's all the more important," he said.
Norquist has endorsed the primary opponent of seven-term Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who voted for the farm and energy bills that included tax increases. In February, Norquist visited Jones's district to tell reporters that Jones had broken his pledge, and as a result, he would support county commissioner Joe McLaughlin to represent the coastal district.
Even though Jones earned Republican ire for opposing the Iraq surge and endorsing Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Norquist said he backed McLaughlin based on Jones's tax record.
"He was so mad at [President George W.] Bush that he couldn't see straight," Norquist said of Jones. "He wants to impeach the vice president. ATR doesn't have an opinion on that. But tax increases is going too far."
McLaughlin said he was honored to have Norquist visit the district and said he intends to keep his pledge.
"It makes people accountable; there's not enough of that in politics," he said. "Government gets too much money."
Norquist's hard-ball tactics haven't endeared him to Jones, whose spokesman told the Raleigh News & Observer that only a small portion of the energy and farm bills Jones voted for called for revenue increases.
The spokesman added that Jones has never voted for a "straight-up tax increase." When The Hill called the campaign office for comment on Norquist's North Carolina visit, someone answered, "Good for him," said Jones would win the race, and hung up.
The last candidate Norquist vigorously supported was Bush, whom he helped during both his presidential campaigns. But the president has lost much of his support. And Norquist has found himself in the headlines, after he and his organization were linked to jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Norquist and his group had taken money from Abramoff's clients and funneled it to lobbying campaigns, according to a Senate Indian Affairs Committee report.
Some Republicans have questioned Norquist's credibility in the wake of the Abramoff scandal. Meanwhile, the Indian Affairs report led to a minor dust-up in 2006 with the committee's chairman, who is now the party's presumptive presidential nominee. In response to the report's findings, Norquist suggested Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would have a problem with his own tax record if he ran for president. A McCain aide brushed that suggestion off at the time. "Obviously, Grover is not well," Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff, told The Washington Post in July 2006.
It seems the two have made up. Norquist now supports McCain for president. But perhaps underscoring his new emphasis on Congress, Norquist touted McCain's potential strength to help win back House districts that went Democratic in 2006.
"It's completely reasonable to look to and expect [Republicans] to take the House back ... with McCain running at the top of the ticket," he said.
Norquist's Abramoff connection likely won't affect his forays outside of the Beltway. Most people know him more as a champion of tax cuts, said Republican strategist Phillip Stutts.
"People in the state of Nebraska or Alabama, who are just sick and tired of government getting bigger and earmarks blowing out of control, pay no attention to the Jack Abramoff scandal," Stutts said.
Norquist isn't the only conservative activist traveling to districts and warning voters of tax hikes. The Club for Growth has challenged Democrats and Republicans viewed as failing to meet the group's fiscally conservative goals. Two of the most notable targets include Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who survived a primary challenge in 2004, and former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who lost the general election in 2006 and has since left the GOP to become an independent. In February, the Club ran television ads against Gilchrest, calling him a "liberal" and the House Republican who voted most often with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The Club, however, has yet to weigh in on Jones's reelection.
Norquist's group can't legally campaign for candidates, so Norquist must keep his support to personal endorsements.
Rep. Don Young (Alaska), another potentially vulnerable GOP candidate, nearly aroused Norquist's displeasure. Norquist called Young a "spend-too-much guy" who thought about raising taxes on gasoline, and considered examining his options in that race.
"And I went and met with him on the subject, and we argued against him, and I personally talked to him, wrote letters and said no, no, no, no," Norquist said. Young, as Norquist tells it, has since backed away from any gas tax increase.
Young's spokeswoman Meredith Kenny noted that Norquist's group has awarded Young several taxpayer awards. "How do you campaign against him after you've given him awards?" she asked.
Norquist said he no longer plans to get involved in Young's race.
"Not at present," he said, "unless something changes."