Capital Sources: Mehlman on GOP Reform

RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman was the man who built the Bush turnout model. He started building a grassroots machine in Iowa in the 2000 campaign, then took it nationwide to win in 2004 as Bush's campaign manager. 2006 was shaping up to be an even more successful turnout for the GOP, but it wasn't enough to hold on to the House or the Senate. Now Mehlman is stepping down from the RNC. He spoke last week to NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You predicted before the election that you'd lose 23 seats in the House. Did you think that was at the upper end?

Ken Mehlman: I thought 23 was moderately pessimistic. Here's what you knew. You knew there was a band of about 30 seats that could go one way or another. There wasn't a common denominator to those 30 seats.

What early results told you it was worse than expected?

Anne Northup [in Kentucky's 3rd district] was a sign of the problem. And the [Mark] Foley seat and the [Tom] DeLay seat. Both are conservative districts we should have held. They were all indicative of things. But as I always said, you have to look at it race by race. While we won most of the close races, we didn't win enough of them, given how many were in Republican territory.

The battlefield was too big?

Because of the number of races on our territory. The overwhelming number of close races were Republican, not Democratic seats. We won the majority of those close races. But if you win 60 percent of the close races and they are all on your territory, you still haven't won enough.

What about the scandals? How much does that account for the defeat? In the end, you lost 28 seats.

There are 12 seats where there were scandals. Then there were seats where an aggressive campaign wasn't waged from the beginning—that is another 18 seats. If you look at those two categories, the majority of lost seats were either touched by a scandal or where an aggressive and effective campaign wasn't waged. Then there are some people, like Nancy Johnson [in Connecticut's 5th district] who ran a fantastic campaign, but unfortunately it wasn't enough in this environment. Jim Talent [running for the Missouri Senate seat] is another. But the general rule is that most of the House seats fell into those categories.

What about the Senate?

What you had in the Senate was a bunch of states—Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and New Jersey—all of which the polls indicated were close races.

You've said it would be a big mistake to think the party doesn't need to change after 2006. What does the party need to do?

We have to recommit ourselves to being the party of reform. We have to push things like earmarks. We have to focus aggressively to reduce spending in Washington. Tax reform is another one. Immigration reform.

People put us into power for different reasons than Democrats. They put us in power to reform things. If all we're doing is managing the bureaucracy and not reforming it, we are not living up to the most important thing we stand for.

Message two is we have to try as hard as we can to work in a bipartisan way, where we can, consistent with our principles, and we have to make sure our tone is always a respectful tone. Washington is polarized. Americans have disagreements on issues. But Washington has personal disagreements on issues. Outside the Beltway, people who are in a different party don't look at each other differently. Just because someone disagrees with you is no reason to call them names.

The third message is to say that people who are in public service ought to be about serving the public not aggrandizement for themselves, and certainly not for personal enrichment.