Tom Cole's next campaign is political and psychological

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) describes himself as a conservative but insists he’s pragmatic. He isn’t known for offering up over-the-top, red-meat rhetoric, but in 2004 he said that if President Bush lost, Osama Bin Laden would win.

An academic, political consultant, and elected public official, Cole will have to add coach and motivator to his resume if he if wants his efforts to help Republicans recapture the House majority in 2008 to be successful. Cole defeated Reps. Phil English (R-Pa.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas) last Friday to become chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

“We’re coming off the most difficult year for the GOP since Watergate in terms of Congressional losses,” Cole said yesterday. “There’s a lot of retooling that needs to be done.”

House Republicans hope Cole can limit their time in the political wilderness to just two years. Cole’s toughest challenge, however, is more psychological than political. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who is friends with Cole, told The Hill last summer that a “sclerosis” had set in among House Democrats and part of his job was to shake up the established order.

Likewise, Republicans said their party quickly would have to overcome the sadness and disappointment of losing this year.

“We cannot afford to go 11 years like the Democrats did — in the fetal position,” said former NRCC Chairman Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.). “Republicans need to … [come] out of the fetal position and get focused on the campaign in 23 months. It’s a mindset.”

Former Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), who chaired the NRCC in 1992 when Cole served as its executive director, said winning back the majority in 2008 is a real possibility.

“We’re only 14 or 15 seats behind. Anything that could go wrong went wrong this time. On a more level playing field, we have a better chance in 2008.”

The impact of the national political environment on congressional races in 2008 is an unknown and uncontrollable factor.

“They have to have a record to run on,” said ex-Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), who employed Cole as his district director. “You have to run in an environment where people are inclined to put Republicans in charge.”

In January, when he becomes the new NRCC chairman, Cole plans to resign his seat on the House Ethics Committee.

“I would not feel comfortable in that position. I don’t think that’s where [committee chairmen] belong,” Cole said, adding that he has not thought about what committee assignments he would like to have. He also serves on the Rules Committee and has kept his seniority on the Armed Services panel.

As NRCC chairman, he will manage a political committee with 65 staffers and a budget of $100 million. Cole said he will appoint a group of members to a transition team by early December and he could begin hiring staff by then, too. The NRCC post is one of the biggest patronage jobs on Capitol Hill; Cole can hire dozens of staffers and consultants, pollsters and strategists.

Since graduating from Grinnell College in Iowa and earning a doctorate degree in history from the University of Oklahoma, Cole has served as state party chairman, state senator and secretary of state. He worked for the NRCC during the 1992 cycle, and served as the Republican National Committee’s chief of staff from 1999 to 2001. He also ran a well-connected, profitable national polling firm, CHS & Associates.

Republican insiders and political observers think the House GOP Conference made the right choice.

“He ties the whole package together,” said Paxon, who ran the committee in the 1994 and 1996 election cycles.

“They picked their most experienced guy … Tom has been an inside player,” said Ron Peters, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma. “The Republicans decided to go with their inside team and Tom’s election is consistent” with the picks of Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) for minority leader and whip, respectively.

Now the inside man must do an outsider’s job: recruit candidates, raise $10 million just to offset the committee’s debt, and prevent a wave of House Republican lawmakers from retiring (of the 38 GOP lawmakers who are over 60 years old, 27 had served prior to 1994).

“You’re going to have a challenge there,” Cole said, adding that he would reach out to lawmakers who lost close races this year to try again in 2008.

“I’m hopeful that a lot of our members will decide they want to stay. Recruitment itself is a big challenge.”

Cole has made history before. At the NRCC in 1992, Republicans defied historical trends by winning 10 seats in the House even though they lost the White House. And new majorities include vulnerable members. In 1996, two years after capturing the majority for the first time in 40 years, 16 GOP incumbents were defeated. The party suffered a net loss of nine seats.