Comparing a Republican to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is not the way to make friends or influence people. But while they’ll trash her as a San Francisco liberal, Republicans venerate Pelosi’s sheer ability to raise money. Her deep, decades-long connections to big-ticket Democratic donors makes her the party’s single best fundraiser, a strategic asset that no one on the Republican side has been able to match since the halcyon days of Newt Gingrich’s speakership.
The current speaker, John Boehner, has been paying attention. As a result, he has become, if not Pelosi-esque, at least one of his party’s better fundraisers.
Boehner spent the year emulating his immediate predecessor, traveling the country at a breakneck pace to campaign and raise money for fellow Republicans. He lived the last seven weeks before Election Day on the road, focusing on vulnerable incumbents, the challengers he believed could win, and the deep-pocketed contributors who could fund them.
“I’ve got a big obligation of being the chief fundraiser for the party and to do everything I can to get our incumbents reelected and help every challenger who’s got a real shot,” Boehner told National Journal earlier this month.
At the time, the speaker was traveling with a coterie of aides—Barry Jackson, his former chief of staff, a single press staffer, and a body man—and a contingent of Capitol Police officers, all aboard a recreational vehicle, wrapped in his campaign logo and a color his team refers to as “Boehner Green.” (The speaker can’t be accused of being too subtle.) It was his 44th of 45 straight days on the trail. In October alone, Boehner hit 20 states for 75 fundraisers, from Vancouver, Wash., to Blowing Rock, N.C., from Coronado, Calif., to Chattanooga, Tenn.
All told, Boehner raised more than $93 million during this election cycle, according to a memo circulating among his top aides. That included $43 million raised for committees he controls and another $50 million for candidates and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Boehner’s aides point out that the speaker transferred $20 million from his own accounts to the NRCC.
That’s on par with Pelosi’s pace—the Democratic leader raised $85 million for her party’s candidates this cycle, hitting a whopping 65 fundraisers in October—and almost double the $50 million that Boehner raised for Republican candidates during the 2010 cycle, when he was the minority leader. Boehner’s travels aren’t focused entirely on the good of the GOP. Just as Pelosi’s deep ties to her party’s financial benefactors helped her keep her job after the Democrats lost the House majority in 2010, Boehner is collecting chits he might need down the road if another ambitious Republican decides to challenge him for the speakership.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor campaigned for more candidates this year, according to a tally compiled by National Journal’s Hotline—93, compared with 50 for Boehner—but Boehner raised more money.
Republicans, and Democrats, for that matter, desperately needed the cash. In an election cycle dominated by a presidential contest and hot Senate races that sucked up hundreds of millions of dollars, House contests often go overlooked. And Boehner, who rode the 2010 wave to the majority, recognized that many GOP members were left vulnerable this year to Democratic challenge in blue presidential states such as California, Illinois, and New York.
Shortly after the 2010 election, Boehner asked his team, headed by former Ohio Republican Party Executive Director Tom Whatman to devise a strategy for those states specifically and for others that wouldn’t be competitive on the presidential level; they dubbed it the Orphan Victory Strategy. The speaker bulked up his political operation, demanded that it consult closely with the NRCC, and built 38 local offices in key districts aimed at doing what no other Republican has done for House races: build a ground game.
“You can run all the ads that you want, but if you don’t go out there and turn out your vote, if you don’t put troops on the ground, you’re not going to be able to hold that ground,” Boehner said. “So we went out to the state delegations, and in some cases the state parties and said, ‘Listen, the Boehner team will put up half the money, about $350,000 a district, to put the backbone of a ground game in place, if you’ll raise the other half,’ ”
In a few cases, mostly in red states, that strategy worked. The orphan-state victory centers made more than 10 million voter contacts. Republicans protected vulnerable incumbents in several areas that tilted toward Democrats. Republicans won Democratic-held seats in Arkansas, Indiana, and Kentucky, all districts that featured Boehner-funded offices.
But even the speaker’s attention couldn’t save some members from a blue-state Democratic wave. Illinois was a bloodbath; Democrats ousted GOP Reps. Joe Walsh, Judy Biggert, Bobby Schilling, and Robert Dold. In New York, Reps. Nan Hayworth and Ann Marie Buerkle lost their jobs. So did Rep. Mary Bono Mack in California. Two other California Republicans, Reps. Brian Bilbray and Dan Lungren, trail their Democratic challengers but have yet to concede defeat. Boehner’s committees paid for 12 offices in California, 10 in New York, and six in Illinois.
“The ground game that we built, I still think, is an important part of the election and an important part of the process going forward,” Boehner said in a subsequent interview looking back at the election results. “But there are limits on what the ground game can produce, especially when you’re being swept away at the top of the ticket, as we saw in California and Illinois.”
Boehner’s efforts to bulk up a political arm weren’t sufficient to save his most vulnerable members. But the favors he collected may be enough to defer any blame he might otherwise have taken for last Tuesday’s losses. And the road trip might help ensure party loyalty in the tough legislative days ahead.
This article appeared in print as "Chasing Nancy."
This article appears in the November 17, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.