An Optimist Leads the Charge for Hill Republicans

Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a political operative who rose quickly in the House, is lending his expertise to the party.
Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a political operative who rose quickly in the House, is lending his expertise to the party. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Lois Romano
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Rep. Tom Cole is looking pretty cheery for a man with the unenviable task of winning back the House for Republicans.

Some pols -- those not wanting to self-immolate, for example -- might have shied away from leading the electoral organ for the House at a time when the GOP is clearly struggling with an unpopular war and a free-falling president. But Cole aggressively sought the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"I think we have probably hit the bottom, in terms in our congressional losses," the Oklahoman said recently at his NRCC offices on the Hill. "You have to understand how bad this night was and yet, on the other hand, you shift 43,000 votes -- we're still there."

The former chief of staff to the Republican National Committee is gaming out the next two years, counting districts. He declares that the Democrats' sweeping gains after 12 years may have been more of a fluke than a trend.

"I would argue our political positioning is superior to theirs -- not the political environment yet, but I think the environment will come," he said, striving to be convincing.

"There are 61 Democrats sitting in seats that George Bush carried twice. Now, George Bush has never been a popular president. This isn't Ronald Reagan. He lost the popular vote the first time; he got reelected with the narrowest percentage. . . . But he won in these districts."

Cole said he is already hunting for strong candidates, and part of his strategy depends mightily on the war scaling down -- which may be a tall order.

"One of two things will happen: Either the president's efforts will succeed and there will be fewer troops in Iraq, or they won't and we'll have the sense that we're getting out of it," he said. "We won't stay there at these levels. It is politically not sustainable, and the pressure will grow, and I think there's a limit on how far you can push the military."

Cole, a Native American and a fifth-generation Oklahoman, was elected to the House in 2002, continuing a career in GOP politics. He's been the state Republican chairman, a state senator, executive director of the NRCC, and Oklahoma's secretary of state under Gov. Frank Keating.

A former political consultant with the heart and soul of an operative, Cole had a quick rise in the House. He was given a prime seat on the Armed Services Committee when he arrived, quickly moved to the powerful Rules Committee, and made his way to the ethics committee in 2005.

He knows all too well that 2008 may be the GOP's shot at thwarting any Democratic momentum toward retaining the majority.

"Can the Democrats run the House by themselves? That's the real sign of a majority," he said. "When push comes to shove, can they hold their people together to get to 218? If you can't do that, you know, when you have to, you're in trouble.

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