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The Rise and Fall of Tom Reynolds

New York Rep. Tom Reynolds announced today that he is not running for reelection in November, capping off a congressional career whose arc neatly mirrors that of the GOP majority he helped lose.

Elected near the apex of Republican power in 1998, Reynolds rose quickly on the strength of his forceful personality, fundraising chops and tactical acumen to the GOP leadership table and the position of potential Speaker-in-waiting. But a series of events eroded his standing, as the disastrous 2006 election, the demise of the New York Republican brand and his supporting role in a pair of scandals reduced Reynolds to what he is today -- an endangered member of the minority with scant prospects for future advancement.

Reynolds is the 22nd House Republican to announce his plans for retirement this cycle, compared to just three Democrats who have done so. Another three Republicans and three Democrats are running for other office, and four more Republicans have already left the chamber during this Congress.

Having previously served as state Assembly minority leader, Reynolds arrived in Congress full of ambition and -- as he never tired of pointing out to reporters and colleagues -- a clear-eyed view of what it meant to serve in a legislative minority and an appreciation of how fortunate Republicans in the Capitol were to hold the reins of power.

Reynolds quickly became a protégé of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), spending long hours plotting strategy with his mentor behind closed doors. Just four years after coming to the House, Reynolds was elected chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 108th Congress. Running the party campaign arm, Reynolds cemented his power, expanding his fundraising network and cultivating a base of members grateful for his support in getting them elected or re-elected.

Until the wheels started to fall off in the 109th Congress, Reynolds had a defined path to power. He was seen as a potential heir apparent to his ally Hastert, either as a candidate for Speaker when the Illinois lawmaker decided to retire or a candidate for Majority Leader or Whip if one of those jobs opened first.

Assuming the GOP had retained control of Congress in 2006, Hastert was expected to reward Reynolds for his successful tour at the NRCC by appointing him chairman of the Republican leadership, an unelected post akin to the Speaker's consigliere. The last occupant of that job was Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), another close Hastert friend who left the House in 2005 to serve in President Bush's cabinet.

But then the trouble started. In September 2005, Rep. Tom DeLay was indicted by a Texas grand jury and was forced to step down from his post as Majority Leader. Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.) -- a Reynolds rival -- was named to take the job temporarily, and then Blunt lost the contest a few months later to replace DeLay permanently to Rep. John Boehner (Ohio). Boehner's ascension to the No. 2 leadership post threw up a roadblock to Reynolds's ambitions for the Speakership, and Reynolds was unable to enter that Majority Leader race because he was too busy helming the NRCC.

In September 2006, news broke that Florida Rep. Mark Foley (R) had sent inappropriate, sexually suggestive electronic messages to House pages. At Reynolds's urging, Foley quickly resigned, but the New Yorker ended up being further ensconsed in the scandal. Reynolds said he had heard of some of Foley's questionable messages earlier in the year and warned Hastert about it. And it emerged that Kirk Fordham -- Reynolds' chief of staff at the time who had previously been Foley's top aide -- played a key role in the controversy. Fordham claimed that he had warned Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, years earlier about Foley's behavior, an assertion Palmer strongly denied.

Just as it helped contribute to the GOP's loss of the House majority, the Foley scandal also put a scare into Reynolds himself. Reynolds was re-elected in 2006 by a 52 to 48 margin against a relatively weak Democratic opponent.

Losing the majority gave Reynolds nowhere else to go in the leadership, as his mentor Hastert left the top ranks and then resigned from the House late last year. And while Reynolds holds a coveted post on the Ways and Means Committee, he has never been suited to the role of policy wonk and has too many members ahead of him on the committee roster to have any realistic chance at eventually becoming the panel's top Republican.

Further eroding Reynolds' position was the revelation last month that the NRCC's former treasurer, Christopher Ward, allegedly transferred several hundred thousand dollars out of the committee's coffers for his own benefit, mostly on Reynolds's watch. Ward's actions, the lack of a proper audit of the committee's books for several years and the enormous debt -- now pegged at $19 million, according to Roll Call -- left over from Reynolds' tenure have served to raise questions about his oversight of the committee.

On the home front, GOP ranks in New York and in the northeast as a whole have been decimated in recent years. Reynolds's seat, which stretches from Buffalo to Rochester and was once considered relatively safe by Empire State standards, is now perennially in play. When Reynolds was elected, Republicans controlled 13 of New York's 31 House seats. Now, after redistricting, they hold just six out of 29, with both Reynolds' seat and that of retiring Rep. James Walsh in danger of falling to Democrats.

As Democrats eagerly point out, Reynolds' impending departure means that five of the six elected Republican leaders from the start of the 109th Congress are now gone or going -- Hastert, DeLay, Reynolds and retiring Reps. Deborah Pryce (Ohio) and John Doolittle (Calif.). Only Blunt is still around, and all five of those seats have either flipped or are in danger of doing so; DeLay's seat went Democratic in 2006, Democrats captured Hastert's seat in a special election earlier this month and Reynolds' and Pryce's districts are high on Democratic target lists. Doolittle's seat looks relatively safe for the GOP, but only because the scandal-tarred incumbent is retiring.

So given the circumstances in both Washington and New York, Reynolds' announcement today is not surprising. Republicans have a long road ahead before they can hope to regain power, and even many of the most senior and previously powerful members of the party are no longer interested in going along for the ride.

By Ben Pershing  |  March 20, 2008; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign , GOP Leaders , House  
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