Politics & Policy

Leadership Election Heralds Big Changes in the NRCC

Rep. Steve Stivers (left) and Rep. Roger Williams (via Facebook)
Candidates are seeking reforms to give members a bigger stake in the committee’s work.

As Republicans work to keep their majority in the House next year, another campaign is being waged behind the scenes: Ohio representative Steve Stivers and Texas representative Roger Williams are vying to be the next chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party organ charged with electing Republicans to the House. And whichever one of them takes the reins, the NRCC is going to see some big changes that could dramatically alter its role in the 2018 election cycle.

Stivers is proposing that the committee get involved in primaries, while Williams has centered his campaign on cutting dues, the amount of money members are required to hand over to the committee each cycle. Over the past several months, the two men have pitched their visions to fellow Republican members. They have whip teams keeping tabs on the votes. And with the House out of session, they are putting their efforts into fundraising and campaigning for other House Republicans in the weeks before November’s election.

The committee provokes some grumbling within the conference. Many members are disenchanted with the hundreds of thousands of dollars they must pay the committee each cycle, an investment that gives direct returns to only a few members in tough seats. Meanwhile, representatives of the House Freedom Caucus have openly complained that the committee is in the tank against them. Both Stivers’s and Williams’s proposals are designed to increase members’ commitment to the committee’s goal of keeping the majority — Williams’s, by decreasing the costs it imposes on each members, Stivers’s by promising that more members will benefit from the NRCC’s newfound involvement in primaries. 

Stivers and a source close to Wiliams spoke extensively to National Review and laid out their proposals for the committee and their pitch to members. The core of Williams’s plan is to lower member dues and, instead, raise more money for the committee from the outside, according to a source close to him. (Williams declined an interview request.) Williams himself pays his dues, but not all members do, and his plan is designed to quell some of the frustration among membership at how much they are expected to pay.

“I’ve always thought the best way to preserve the majority is to allow members to build significant cash reserves on hand, but that money’s been siphoned off for the past several years by the NRCC,” says South Carolina representative Mick Mulvaney, a member of the House Freedom Caucus who is backing Williams.

Williams would lower dues for all members and bring in a professional finance team to help make up the difference. Rank-and-file members would be expected to pay a flat fee of $200,000. Leadership and committee chairs would be expected to pay more than that but less than they pay now.

The proposal has drawn criticism from some Republicans who fear it would leave the committee short on cash.

“Anytime you have a rate cutting that’s pretty dramatic, you better have a plan of how you’re going to make that up,” current NRCC chairman Greg Walden told reporters at a September press event. “And if you can make that up elsewhere, then I would just say, let’s go do that now, because we could use the extra $20 or $30 million.” (Walden has declined to make any endorsement in the race.)

Oklahoma representative Tom Cole, a former NRCC chair who is backing Stivers, professed himself “skeptical” of the idea of cutting dues. “Roy Blunt used to have a great line when he was chief whip, which was, ‘Nobody cares more about House Republicans than House Republicans.’ And if our members aren’t willing to step up and support their committee so we can maintain the majority and keep gavels, I think it’s a fantasy to believe other people will do more than you do for yourself,” he says.

Regardless of who wins, one thing is clear: The NRCC might look very different next cycle.

Stivers, currently a deputy chair of the NRCC, has taken a different tack, proposing two changes to make it easier for members to pay dues at their existing levels. First, he would create a “national finance committee of volunteers” and pair each member with a volunteer fundraiser. All the money that volunteer fundraiser pulled in for the committee would count toward the member’s dues. Second, the committee would connect each member with about 20 donors or prospective donors for whom they would be responsible. That would give members a little bit more of a foothold on fundraising, since they would no longer just be cold-calling people to ask for money.

But the bigger component of Stivers’s pitch, he tells National Review, is to give members a “good old American enlightened self-interest in the committee” by getting it involved in primaries.

Of the 246 House seats currently held by Republicans, 217 are considered safe. Since these seats aren’t competitive, the NRCC tends to pay them little attention, which means most of the members who are asked to pay dues will probably never see any of that money spent to help them unless redistricting dramatically changes the contours of their district.

There would have to be clear evidence that a primary was competitive in order to justify the NRCC’s getting involved, Stivers says. If the race was not already on the NRCC’s radar, the member would have to provide polling evidence that the NRCC could verify to justify involvement. But beyond that, “the only requirement” for NRCC help would be that the member paid his or her dues.

“It wouldn’t matter whether they are a House Freedom Caucus member, or a Tuesday Group member, or an RSC [Republican Study Committee] member,” Stivers says, listing off the various conservative groups within the House conference, whose members often clash with leadership.

Primaries usually cost significantly less money than general elections, so the NRCC’s involvement “will hardly break the bank,” Stivers says. He proposes holding a “Patriot Day” for members in tough primaries, a day-long fundraising blitz like those they hold for members in tough general elections. Those fundraising efforts usually raise around $100,000 or $200,000 for incumbents, and that amount of money would go a long way in a primary.

Races that pit one member against another as a result of redistricting would not draw NRCC involvement, Stivers says, unless one member in the primary paid dues and the other did not. The committee would stay out of open-seat races altogether.

But playing in competitive primaries still raises some thorny issues. “If you start getting into primaries, then how do you pick and choose?” Walden asked reporters at a briefing last month. For some Republicans involved in House races, that is the million-dollar question. What would determine if something was a competitive primary and if the NRCC’s help was justified? Would the NRCC chairman, a member of Republican leadership, go to bat for a conference member who repeatedly bucked leadership?

Before this cycle, most of the primary fire had been trained on so-called establishment members of the conference. Dave Brat upended Eric Cantor, say, or a Club for Growth–backed candidate attempted to oust Representative Mike Simpson. But this year saw a reversal of roles: Establishment-aligned groups mounted a concerted, successful effort to oust Tim Huelskamp, a Freedom Caucus member. If that trend continues and the NRCC starts wading into primaries, it could find itself pitted against groups that have historically been its allies. For instance, many in the Freedom Caucus have taken issue with American Action Network, a group aligned with former speaker John Boehner that has run issue ads against some members in primaries. But Congressional Leadership Fund, AAN’s sister organization — the two share a president and staff — has been a staunch ally of the NRCC in general elections.

Stivers was explicit about one goal of the proposal: To “discourage . . . outside groups that go out and recruit candidates and try to encourage people to run against our members.” That statement seems clearly aimed at the Club, which has been perhaps the most active group in recruiting challengers to sitting members.

Williams does not have a hard-and-fast position on NRCC involvement in primaries. The source close to him says he is “open to the idea” for competitive primaries, but it has not been a centerpiece of his pitch to members. He, too, would be unsympathetic to those who decline to pay their dues. “If someone’s not willing to be on the team,” says the source close to Williams, “then why would you go in and support their primary?”

#related#Many Republicans believe that Stivers has the inside track. Because he is the NRCC deputy chair, his candidacy is seen as something of a continuation of Walden’s chairmanship, and that perception would help his chances if things go well for House Republicans in November. He also has the endorsement of both other deputy chairs — Missouri representative Ann Wagner and North Carolina representative Richard Hudson — both of whom flirted with leadership bids themselves. But operatives working with Williams caution that it is still very much a race.

Regardless of who wins, one thing is clear: The NRCC might look very different next cycle.

— Alexis Levinson is National Review’s senior political reporter.

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