Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, held a press teleconference today in response to the third straight special-election loss this year. Losing Roger Wicker’s Mississippi seat stunned the House GOP caucus, which now has three more seats to recover in what looks like a very bad year for Republicans. They elected to go directly to Q&A after an initial greeting from Rep. Cole.

  • Pacifica Radio: How do you change the strategy after MS? — Cole says he needs to take a long, hard look to see if something’s wrong with the product. He thinks the voters mostly agree with Republicans but simply don’t trust the GOP to follow their own rhetoric. The conference needs to do a better job establishing credibility, and McCain could help with his own personal integrity. The caucus needs to fight on principle. He notes that the Democrats who beat them mostly ran against their own party.
  • Chuch Rausch, Gannett: Do the Democrats have an organizational advantage? — Yes; the presidential campaign has not divided the Dems on policy. He sees an advantage in their media domination, thanks to the extended primary, without getting a lot of competition from Republicans.
  • Jim Engle, Fox: Dems cast themselves as “the party of change”; how can Republicans compete? — The change will happen regardless, but the Dems who won these elections haven’t run on change. They’ve been pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax. The problem isn’t change but credibility. They will roll out policies on family values later today, and the debate will make differences plain. Can McCain be a candidate of change as a Republican? — McCain has “his own brand” and is running credibly as an agent of change. He’s running remarkably close at this stage.
  • Ron Brownstein: How did it work to connect Obama to the candidates, and how did Bush affect the races? — Tying Obama to the candidates help in subtle ways for the general election, and it forces Dems to distance themselves from the party and its leadership. Cole thinks history will treat Bush well, and doesn’t see an advantage in debating Bush. What matters is where we go after Bush. Bush hasn’t bent much to the Democrats; would it help his approval ratings to compromise in the next few months? — The Democrats should be asked that question. They didn’t cooperate on Social Security and immigration, for instance. They’ve been dragging their heels on FISA. Bush needs to continue doing what he thinks is right, not politically expedient.
  • Daniel Nafsal, Guardian: How can the GOP fight against conservative Democrats? — Electing Democrats supports Nancy Pelosi. She controls the agenda when Democrats have the majority. The Blue Dogs have not had an impact on legislation, and Heath Shuler’s stalled immigration bill is one example. The NRCC needs to emphasize that fact.
  • Paul Kane: What internal changes will come at the NRCC? — It’s a mistake to think that staff tweaking is the answer. The same staff won all three special elections last year. It’s about the credibility of the party and the candidates. Again, the Democrats that won did so on conservative platforms. That will eventually degrade the Blue Dog credibility, too. Democrats have had the advantage of “being in the negative”, and have not really laid out any grand agenda — they run against Republicans, and that won’t last much longer as a strategy.
  • Reid Wilson: Does this mean that the NRCC will remain on defense? — No, Cole sees opportunities for take-aways, too. They will continue to press Democrats to defend seats. This “Do-Nothing” Congress has essentially wasted time for two years.
  • Me: How does the caucus go about establishing credibility as reformers, as John Boehner noted? — He doesn’t see the Appropriations assignment has much impact on political support (I asked about Jeff Flake). He doesn’t want to comment on committee assignments.
  • Rich Lowry, National Review: How did the Republicans lose this credibility? — The war, the economy, and a failure to live up to our own ideals. Governing takes its toll, as compromises have to made from a governing position. The American people are fundamentally fair, and that the caucus needs to return to its principles.

This was an interesting call. Cole repeatedly talked about credibility and how important it is in winning these elections. He somewhat avoided the question as to how the House GOP caucus could re-establish credibility in the next few months to allow the NRCC to succeed in at least holding the line in November. That question should really be directed to John Boehner, and perhaps it will be in the next few days.