A New Pitchman -- and a New Pitch

"We don't need to conquer new territory to win back the majority," says new NRCC Chairman Tom Cole. "We need to reclaim lost territory, which is easier." (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Juliet Eilperin and Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

One day back when Republicans controlled Congress, Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) found themselves talking politics, something both men tend to do when they happen to be awake.

Cole, who has worked behind the scenes for just about every prominent Republican politician in Oklahoma as well as the national party, suggested that House Democrats would need a political pro to win back the majority in 2006, and he predicted they'd choose Emanuel to chair their campaign committee. Emanuel, who was once President Clinton's top political adviser, said he doubted it; he'd clashed too many times with party leaders.

"You don't have to like George Patton to know you need George Patton," Cole replied.

Cole was right, and Emanuel ultimately led the Democrats back to the majority. That's why Republicans wanted their own Patton -- their own Rahm -- to take back the House in 2008. And that's why they've elected Cole to chair the National Republican Congressional Committee, where he once served as executive director.

"A guy with that kind of résumé, we'd be paying millions of dollars for him as a consultant," said Rep. Candice S. Miller (Mich.), the head of recruiting for the NRCC.

It's true; Cole has run the Republican National Committee, the Oklahoma GOP and a lucrative consulting business. He has also been a state senator, congressional staff member and Oklahoma's secretary of state. He loves to read cross tabs, and he's a consummate insider. "His Rolodex," says former aide John Woods, "is like all of MySpace plus all of Facebook."

But even the best political consultants know there's only so much they can do with an unpopular client, and congressional Republicans had a 39 percent approval rating in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll -- nearly as low as that of President Bush and the Iraq war. Cole's ascension raises a tough question for a party that's still tied to that unpopular president and that unpopular war: Do Republicans need to change their policies, or their politics? Can they win back the House by distancing themselves from a lame-duck president and burnishing their image, or do they need a more fundamental ideological shift?

Some Republicans argue that the party lost its majority by straying from conservative principles, especially limited government spending. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) made similar arguments when his leadership was challenged this past winter, although he now blames the defeats on "Iraq, Iraq, Iraq."

Cole has run the numbers, and he doesn't think the GOP was doomed by appropriating federal money for bridges to nowhere in Alaska. His diagnosis includes Iraq, corruption scandals and a general sense that Republicans "overreached" after taking over Washington. He's a conservative Republican from a conservative district, but he says that the United States is a "center-right country, not a right-wing country." He wants the GOP to woo swing voters, and he believes they can be coaxed back into the fold with better messaging, better marketing and better performance.

"Oh, I don't think the problem was spending," Cole said. "People who argue that we lost because we weren't true to our base, that's just wrong."

The good news, Cole says, is that things can't get much worse. There are now 61 Democrats in House districts Bush won in 2004, and only eight Republicans in districts he lost, so Cole plans to "play offense" in 2008. He thinks House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is electoral poison, too liberal for the country, and he can't wait to attack moderate Democrats for "marching in lock step" with their liberal leader. He's also eager to have a GOP presidential nominee, a new standard-bearer for a Bush-fatigued nation.

So far, no Republicans in Congress have retired, and Cole says his recruiting efforts have been, "quite frankly, far better than I had anticipated." Democrats say they've recruited twice as many "top-tier challengers," but Cole is enthusiastic about candidates trying to win back the House seats of Republicans Gil Gutknecht (Minn.), Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.), Sue W. Kelly (N.Y.) and John E. Sweeney (N.Y.). "We don't need to conquer new territory to win back the majority," Cole said. "We need to reclaim lost territory, which is easier."

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