A New Pitchman -- and a New Pitch
As NRCC Chief, Cole Has Plan to Win Back House in 2008

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."

Cole distributed a quarterly report yesterday to his GOP colleagues highlighting what he called the "untold successes" of his operation so far this year. The memo describes how the panel has already attracted and helped prepare candidates for the 2008 battle: Nearly 30 of them arrived in Washington this week for "candidate school," Boehner and presidential adviser Karl Rove, among others, briefed them on such topics as fundraising and talking to reporters.

But Cole doesn't deny that "it's a tough environment right now." House Democrats raised more money than Republicans last quarter, and they have a 4 to 1 advantage in cash on hand. The corruption theme that plagued the GOP in 2006 is back. The FBI recently raided businesses connected to Reps. John T. Doolittle (Calif.) and Rick Renzi (Ariz.), and grilled Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.) about a junket with now-disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And Cole acknowledges that if the situation in Iraq doesn't improve, he might be looking at a tough 2008.

"I think we've hit our floor," Cole said. "For us to lose more seats, it's going to take a catastrophic presidential election." But he didn't hasten to say that that couldn't happen.

Praise From Across the Aisle

Cole is from suburban Oklahoma City, the kind of area inevitably referred to as "the heartland." His district includes two huge military bases, bedroom communities, wheat and cotton fields, a few tire factories, and the Helen Cole Memorial Highway, named for his mother, a bank teller who became a legendary Sooner politician.

The district also includes the University of Oklahoma, where Cole received his doctorate, and the headquarters of the Chickasaw Nation, of which Cole is a member. He's the only Native American in Congress; during immigration debates, he likes to tell colleagues that as far as he's concerned, they're all illegals.

For a hard-nosed partisan, Cole is unusually amiable; when Boehner says that Republicans need to learn to disagree without being disagreeable, he's saying they need to be more like Cole. (Cole didn't support Boehner for leader, but they're still close.) Emanuel calls Cole "a shrewd, smart operator, and -- the highest compliment -- a mensch." When Cole first ran for Congress in 2002, after his client J.C. Watts announced he would retire, a Washington political operative named Les Francis called his campaign headquarters and offered his endorsement.

"Great," answered Woods, who was running Cole's campaign. "Who are you?"

"I worked with Tom in D.C.," Francis explained.

"At the NRCC?" Woods asked.

"No, the DCCC." Francis had been Cole's Democratic counterpart, but also his friend.

"He understands campaigns, how they're fought on the ground and on the air," Francis said in an interview. "He's a worthy adversary for the Democrats."

Cole is still the purest kind of political junkie, a backstage operative at heart. This was his takeaway from a recent meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "Now, that's a great politician. He kisses babies, he slaps backs, he builds coalitions. I would love to run him."

Like Emanuel, Cole is more of a policy wonk than most political operatives are, but when it comes to recruiting House candidates, he's all about winning. He's a pro-war social and fiscal conservative, but sources say he hasn't pushed conservatives such as Jim Ryun (Kan.) or Richard W. Pombo (Calif.) to try to reclaim their House seats, because he thinks more moderate candidates might fare better. Cole says his mother was an intuitive pol who would "go to the mountaintop and sniff the air and talk to the Great Spirit" before making decisions, but Cole is a numbers guy, and he says most of his recruits are the same way.

"We're not getting recruits with the ideological fervor of 1994," he said. "It's more professionals who are making professional calculations: They're looking at Republican seats with Republican infrastructure, and they might take a shot."

But they might not. Last year, Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) nearly lost his race to replace disgraced former congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla.) to a well-regarded state legislator named Joe Negron, even though Negron jumped into the race a few weeks before Election Day, and voters who supported him had to vote for Foley. It's a solid Republican district, and the NRCC has named Mahoney one of the five most vulnerable Democratic incumbents; in an interview, Negron ticked off several votes Mahoney has cast that could cause him problems at home.

Cole thought he had persuaded Negron to run again, and Negron said the prospect of serving in the minority made the race more attractive. "I'd love to be up there talking about how we can't afford those peanut subsidies," he said. But he ultimately decided the time wasn't right.

"That was really surprising," Cole said.

Instead, Cole spent half an hour recently chatting with Tom Rooney, a 36-year-old lawyer who's an heir to the Pittsburgh Steelers fortune. In an interview, Rooney talked a lot about Ronald Reagan but not much about Bush. "I do think we will get the majority," Rooney said. "I don't know if we'll get it back in 2008."

Almost all the Republicans interviewed for this article said that the party will have a new face in 2008, and almost all think it will be a more popular face than Bush's. Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), who faces a rematch with a challenger who almost beat her last year, said her votes on Capitol Hill may not matter much on Election Day. "We will be defined not necessarily by what we do, but by our presidential nominee more than anything else," she said.

But Democrats say they won't let Republicans run away from their support for Bush. "Whether Republicans like it or not, George Bush is on the ballot in 2008, up and down the ballot," Emanuel said. "Every presidential year is a referendum on the incumbent."

Cole is a history buff, and he thinks history will see Bush as a courageous president who helped transform the Middle East. "Remember, Truman was unpopular, too," he says. But then he remembered his political history. "You know, that's not a very happy analogy for us. After Truman, the Democrats lost the House and the White House in 1952."

Support for Iraq War

In 1952, the Democrats were saddled with Korea. Now the Republicans have Iraq.

Cole's district is a military stronghold where supporting the war and the president is no political liability. On a trip home this month, Cole received two standing ovations at a dinner for first responders at Tinker Air Force Base. The emcee introduced Cole as "a man who goes to sleep every night and wakes up every morning thinking about how he can make this country better."

Cole says there's no doubt that the Bush administration has made mistakes in Iraq, but he's still convinced that Americans want to win, and that demands for withdrawal are bad politics and bad policy. He thinks that every day that Americans hear about Pelosi and her antiwar rhetoric -- and especially her recent trip to Syria, which Cole called "a PR disaster of the first order" -- is a good day for House Republicans.

"That lady from California, can you tell her to stop gallivanting around the world trying to be president?" City Council member Larry O'Connell of Del City asked Cole after the dinner at the air base.

"Well, we're going to have to change the numbers," Cole replied with a laugh.

But the next morning, a 54-year-old wholesale car buyer named Bill Kirtley challenged Cole about the war at a town hall meeting in Pauls Valley. Kirtley, a Chickasaw, said he talked to a 20-year-old soldier who said he believes that it doesn't matter whether the United States withdraws tomorrow or a decade from tomorrow. He called Iraq a quagmire, a Vietnam War in the sand.

"I've been a registered Republican for 20 years, but I'm so ashamed of the party," he told Cole. "What are we doing in Iraq? Anyone with any sense can see this is crazy."

Cole spent the next 20 minutes debating with Kirtley, conceding that mistakes have been made, insisting that not all is lost, warning that Americans will pay the price if the Middle East is not transformed. "We can't go around the world stomping people," Kirtley said. Cole replied: "That's why you're seeing a different approach to Iran and North Korea."

In the end, the two agreed to disagree. "Tom's a good man," Kirtley said later. "But he's a Republican congressman, and they've just lost their way."

Many Republicans in Congress agree; their debate is over how to find their way. The 2006 election wiped out many moderate Republicans, leaving the caucus smaller but even more conservative. Now conservatives such as Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), House Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam (Fla.) and Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) want Republicans to return to their austerity principles, while avoiding the corruption scandals that dogged them last year.

"An indispensable ingredient for us to reclaim the majority is to convince the American people we're serious about accountability and fiscal responsibility," Hensarling said.

But moderate Republicans such as Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (Ill.) think that conservatives have driven the GOP caucus too far right on contentious social policy as well as corporate-friendly economic and environmental policy. Kirk will need independent voters to help him win a rematch with Dan Seals, who received 47 percent of his district's vote last year, and he and other moderates have sketched out a "suburban agenda" aimed at winning over independents by focusing on issues such as health care and education.

"When I hear my colleagues debating on the floor, I think, 'Some of this rhetoric is so20th-century,' " Kirk said.

It is Cole's job to accommodate both wings of the party, and he thinks it can be done by attacking Democrats -- as tax-and-spenders and blame-America-first defeatists. Cole says Pelosi was smart to begin with her "Six for '06" agenda of popular issues such as ethics reforms, the minimum wage and low-interest student loans -- even he voted for the student loan package -- but now he thinks she's showing her true liberal colors, and dragging her caucus along. "We need the Democrats to be Democrats, and thank God, they are," he said.

Still, Cole knows that if the situation in Iraq deteriorates, Republican prospects probably will, too. His biggest fear is not poor NRCC recruiting or anemic NRCC fundraising but a collapse of the Iraqi government. He says he once had high hopes for Ayad Allawi, who served as prime minister of the interim government until the spring of 2005. "A great pol," Cole recalled.

But no Karzai. When Cole was asked whether he would have loved to run Allawi, too, he had to acknowledge that even his political skills have their limits.

"I don't know about that," he said.

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