Patriot Program preps for relaunch

June 1, 2011

 The National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday will launch the Patriot Program, a tough-love incumbent protection effort designed to assist freshmen and a few longer-serving lawmakers expected to face difficult paths to reelection.

Under the program, which Republicans implemented during the last election season, only members who agree to meet a series of rigorous campaign benchmarks will be eligible for financial backing from the NRCC.

This year’s effort will focus heavily on the 87-member freshman class. Of the program’s 10 initial inductees, seven — Reps. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, Allen West of Florida, Lou Barletta and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, Joe Heck of Nevada and Francisco Canseco of Texas — are first-termers. Two — Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire — have returned to the House after losing their seats in previous years.

The plan includes one veteran — Rep. Tom Latham, a close ally of Speaker John Boehner who decided to run against Rep. Leonard Boswell after his central Iowa seat was merged with that of tea-party-aligned GOP Rep. Steve King in redistricting.

All Patriot Program members represent districts that President Barack Obama carried in 2008, making them all but certain to be at the top of the Democratic target list in 2012.

The program will be overseen by NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas and Vice Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon; both signaled to party officials at the beginning of the year that they wanted to head up the significant task of defending the party’s expanded rank and file. NRCC higher-ups have spent the past several months putting the finishing touches on the incumbent retention effort, and House GOP leaders will join forces to host their first fundraiser later this month benefiting those in the program.

In a letter introducing the program to lawmakers, Sessions and Walden wrote: “The Patriot Program is about always staying on offense. Designed in 2009 for the unique opportunities and challenges of incumbent members of Congress, the Patriot Program empowers members to build strong and winning campaigns through goals, benchmarks and accountability.”

Sessions told POLITICO that freshmen are a key focus for the committee for the next 18 months — and of particular importance will be offering support to the large class of GOP lawmakers who are political newcomers and waging their first battles for reelection. Of the new Patriots, West and Canseco are serving in elective office for the first time.

“The freshmen are the point of contact,” said Sessions. “I think the reality of it is we are dealing with people who have never been elected before.”

But the House GOP campaign arm is also zeroing in on a few veterans who, as a result of newly drawn congressional maps, are vigorously ramping up their campaign operations. Latham, who said he welcomed the extra help, predicted the list will expand soon.

“It’s natural with redistricting,” said Latham, who spent the Memorial Day weekend campaigning in his new southwestern Iowa district. “Every 10 years, there are more members in member versus member races.

The program’s reintroduction comes just one week after Republicans lost a special election for an upstate New York House seat they were initially widely expected to win. At a press briefing last week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York argued that the party’s victory, coupled with a new Democratic offensive over the GOP-led campaign to rewrite Medicare, meant Democrats are poised to compete across the map and put the House in play.

Republicans have dismissed the New York outcome as the result of an unusual three-way fracas that featured a tea party candidate who siphoned votes from the Republican nominee, Jane Corwin. But Walden acknowledged that party leaders had warned incumbents for months that 2012 will present a more difficult electoral landscape than 2010.

“We were saying from the beginning that this cycle isn’t last cycle,” he told POLITICO.

Taken together, the NRCC expects as many as 80 members to participate in this year’s Patriot Program — two times as many as in 2010. The committee plans to substantially increase the number of lawmakers involved in the program over the coming months, with GOP strategists explaining that the political environment will remain fluid as state legislatures across the country finalize redistricting maps.

“This year, we will have a significantly larger amount involved in the Patriot Program, and it’s based on people who are new to the job, who are new to Congress, who may be new to politics, who have old opponents running against them again and who might be there because of redistricting,” said Sessions.

Sessions, who is serving his second cycle as chairman, installed the Patriot Program in 2009 as part of a broader committee revamp, vowing to end what he called a “welfare” mentality at the NRCC.

No longer would the House GOP campaign arm provide financial support to incumbents who weren’t pulling their weight — as it did in previous cycles with former Reps. Bill Sali of Idaho and John Hostettler of Indiana. Under the new model, lawmakers would move to address their vulnerabilities early on and hope to scare off potential opponents based on the strength of their campaign.

The NRCC shored up roughly 40 Republicans during the first round of the Patriot Program two years ago, monitoring a wide range of benchmarks from fundraising to grass roots and coalition building. Party officials credit the program with strengthening endangered lawmakers and allowing the NRCC to focus its spending almost exclusively on a TV ad campaign targeting Democrats.

The blueprint calls for some pain, Walden acknowledged. When the NRCC unveiled the program in 2009, he said, some Republicans expressed discomfort with the idea of being held accountable for their political operations.

This go around, Walden said, the response had been “very positive.”

“It’s a pretty simple strategy, and it made a big difference for us last cycle,” he said.

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