Congress might have just clocked in its lowest approval rating on record, but Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are still testing their economic plans with House Republicans.
Their Hill strategy reflects their campaign strategy: Romney is reaching out to House leaders and Perry is courting conservatives.
Romney’s operation has privately briefed House leadership aides at least twice: once on Romney’s jobs package before it was unveiled in Las Vegas alongside Rep. Joe Heck earlier this month and again before a speech last week in South Carolina, where the former Massachusetts governor criticized the National Labor Relations Board.
Perry will meet with House conservatives on the Hill this week, according to several sources aware of his plans. The Texas governor has also begun to make in-roads with his state’s congressional delegation, with whom he has a rocky rapport.
Freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who is helping to set up the the Hill meeting for Perry, is serving as an economic adviser to the campaign. He said Perry plans to make House Republicans’ signature Cut, Cap and Balance approach to the budget this year “a centerpiece of his platform.” Mulvaney added that he hopes to help “put some meat on that bone.”
In a year in which Congress’s popularity has hit a historic low, presidential candidates aren’t pushing hard for public endorsements like in 2008, when candidates courted lawmakers, aides say. But the meetings are a reminder that House Republicans have been the driving force behind the party’s big ideas — offering a useful sounding board for the issues sure to surface during the primary season.
“We are the Republican branch of government right now,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said in an interview with POLITICO. “That’s the reality.”
Former House Republican leadership aide Ron Bonjean agrees.
“House Republicans have stepped in and really created a role for themselves so far,” Bonjean said. “They have been considered the tip of the spear on messaging, and with such a wide open field, people are trying to figure out who the consensus candidate is.”
“The main point is you want the Republican nominee and House Republicans to be pulling on the same oar, mainly on the spending question, as we go into ’12,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip and a member of the party’s House leadership.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul downplayed the campaign’s Capitol presence.
“Gov. Romney developed many relationships across the country while he [was] campaigning for a Republican majority last year across the country and, as such, we have a great network of friends from all of the states,” Saul wrote in an email. “Gov. Romney maintains an open line of communication with our friends and leaders of the party as we look forward to replacing President [Barack] Obama and getting our country back on the right.”
Perry’s campaign did not return requests for comment.
Endorsements are far slower than they were in 2008, and GOP aides recall an aggressive campaign to snag endorsements in 2010 — something that several lawmakers and insiders say isn’t happening this time around.
Indeed, only a handful of lawmakers have publicly backed candidates. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) became the most recent, with his support Monday of Romney’s campaign.
Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican whose district is home to the first Reagan Democrats, had to call Perry’s campaign herself to offer her endorsement. She said she is ready to employ her statewide political operation in favor of the Texas governor. She also is introducing him at the Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island this weekend.
“Let’s face it, Congress has a low approval rating,” Miller said in an interview, describing why presidential action is muted on Capitol Hill. “I called the campaign, I haven’t been told to lock up other endorsements, but obviously as I’ve been talking to people, and they say they want to endorse, I’m passing those names on to the campaign.”
Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), who has not officially endorsed any of the candidates, said endorsements matter because they help “develop the narrative,” and that he plans to have a conversation with Perry soon.
“I plan to be very active,” Griffin said.
So far, Romney has locked up, in addition to Mulvaney, Reps. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), Joe Heck (Nev.), Connie Mack (Fla.), Tom Rooney (Fla.), Buck McKeon (Calif.) and Mike Simpson (Idaho). Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign has locked up Reps. Joe Barton and Michael Burgess of Texas and Jack Kingston and Tom Price, both from Gingrich’s Georgia. Perry’s campaign has drawn the support of Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves (Mo.) and Mike McCaul (Texas).
Long relationships could cut both ways. For example, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said he has known Perry since their days at Texas A&M University, but when asked whether he would support his potential candidacy earlier this summer, he would only say that he “heard of” Perry’s name. Chaffetz, who was Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s chief of staff in Salt Lake City, snubbed his former boss in favor of Romney.
Most resoundingly, no one in the House has voiced support for candidates Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) or Thad McCotter (Mich.). Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) has endorsed Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
House leaders have not endorsed — and are unlikely to in the primary. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked about the candidates last week during a question-and-answer session in Washington and said there are “a lot of great candidates. Love all of them.”
“Well, some I like more than others,” Boehner said to laughter.
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