AUSTIN, Texas Republican leaders wound up their annual winter meeting yesterday expressing confidence, although they acknowledged that historic precedent is against them as they face congressional elections this fall.
The party that wins the White House typically loses congressional seats in the midterm election that follows, as happened to Democrats in 1994.
“History says we should get our clocks cleaned in November,” White House Political Director Ken Mehlman said after the Republican National Committee meeting here over the weekend. “The fact that we’re in the game is the result of a strong, effective president. We’ve got more unity than ever and a strategy that everybody agrees on.”
That strategy, outlined in private sessions here, includes a “72-hour task force” designed to counter what Republicans long have complained about: the Democrats’ devastating negative attacks in the last three days of election campaigns.
State party chairmen and other national committee members said they were surprised by the high spirits at the three-day Republican gathering.
Despite the usual trend against the party that holds the presidency in off-year elections, most analysts think Republicans will not see further erosion in the Senate, and can hold and maybe even expand their six-seat House majority.
The RNC’s meeting went more smoothly than some expected. The election on Friday of former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot as the new national party chairman went off without a hitch, even though some had feared grumbling over the ouster by the White House of his predecessor, Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III.
Yesterday, in his first head-to-head encounter with his opposite number, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Mr. Racicot showed he could think on his feet.
Asked by Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s decision to delay, because of state deficits, a scheduled tax cut amounted to a tax increase, Mr. Racicot answered, “I think that argument can be made in all fairness, yes.”
In tacitly criticizing the Republican Florida governor, Mr. Racicot evaded a trap. To have said otherwise would have contradicted President Bush’s argument that efforts by Democrats in Congress to delay tax cuts passed last year amounts to a tax increase in the midst of an economic downturn.
In the one sour note of the RNC meeting here, most Republicans in attendance were dismayed by media reports that White House chief political strategist Karl Rove, in a luncheon speech to the national committee, had sought to turn the war on terrorism into partisan advantage in the coming elections.
“Americans trust Republicans to do a better job on keeping our communities and families safe,” Mr. Rove said. “We can also go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.”
Mr. McAuliffe said Mr. Rove’s remarks could be “interpreted” as making the war a partisan issue.
But one veteran Republican suggested the press and Democrats were manufacturing an issue.
“It’s a real stretch to try to say Karl was trying to turn the war on terror into a campaign issue,” former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Kayne Robinson said.