“Averting bankruptcy requires us to grasp the severity of our fiscal condition and summon the courage to speak boldly about the difficult steps needed to increase revenues and sharply decrease spending,” he wrote.
An erosion of support among candidates would be especially significant because Norquist has long aimed to collect signatures from Republicans before they take office. He encourages candidates to use their pledges to help to define their tax stance for voters.
Once the pledge is signed, Norquist considers it binding for the remainder of the candidate’s career in public service if he or she wins office.
In an interview, Norquist said the pledge is a strong as ever. He noted that in the pressure-cooker days of the debt-ceiling debate last summer, Republicans held firm against tax increases and wrested a deal from Democrats to lower deficits through spending cuts alone.
“That was when the pledge was tested and the commitment of Republicans not to raise taxes was really pushed hard. And Obama and the spending interests failed, and Republicans and the taxpayers won,” he said.
He cited several recent examples of Republican primaries in which ATR-backed candidates defeated Republicans considered less fiscally conservative. This month, ATR helped Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeat six-term Sen. Richard G. Lugar in a Republican primary. And this week, Tom Cotton won a Republican primary in Arkansas after ATR called voters to let them know his opponent had not signed the pledge. Cotton is seeking a seat held by retiring Democrat Rep. Mike Ross.
Norquist said the ATR pledge remains the best way to signal to wary voters that a candidate will not change his mind on taxes once in office. “The pledge isn’t what keeps them from raising taxes,” he said. “It’s what confirms to voters that they won’t raise taxes. Because they’re competing with several hundreds of years of politicians lying about this.”
But a new test looms: a colossal fight over spending and taxes at the end of the year, when the Bush-era tax cuts expire at the same time a series of deep cuts to defense and domestic programs is set to take effect.
Democrats have said they will not agree to renew some of the tax breaks or avert the defense cuts, as Republicans want, unless Republicans agree to impose higher taxes on the wealthy. Any wiggle room for Republicans on taxes could dramatically reshape that debate.
Because of the GOP’s sweeping successes in the 2010 election, the NRCC’s targeted Young Gun races include some districts where Republicans have little chance of winning in November. It is unclear how many of the new pledge refuseniks will make it to Washington.
But after months of Democratic attacks on ATR and Norquist as obstacles to a debt deal, some Republican candidates report that they are hearing from more voters who want them to reject the pledge than the opposite.
Gary DeLong, a member of the Long Beach City Council who is labeled a “contender” for a House seat by the NRCC, said he is routinely encouraged on doorsteps and at town halls and candidate coffees to avoid the pledge.
Voters “ want me to represent them and not special interests,” said DeLong, who will compete next month in California’s unusual mixed-party primary for one of two spots on the November ballot in a newly drawn district.
Two Republicans vying to challenge Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack in Iowa have indicated they will not sign. In Indiana, former U.S. attorney Susan Brooks won the GOP nomination for a solidly Republican seat, defeating three Republicans who had signed the pledge.
“She’s committed to lowering taxes,” said Dollyne Sherman, a spokeswoman for Brooks. “She thinks that’s a key ingredient in restoring the nation’s economy. But she doesn’t need to sign a tax pledge to do that.”
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a fiscal conservative who has tangled with Norquist, said he believes candidates are starting to understand that the ATR pledge’s power has been exaggerated by Norquist and the media and that Norquist is wrong when he asserts that it is nearly impossible to win a Republican primary without signing the pledge.
“That’s him patting himself on the back,” Coburn said. “And I think it’s bull crap.”