Pete Sessions ladles on a special sauce

I had a dream the other night. A bunch of New York politicos, some from each party, were playing “Wheel of Fortune.” The solution was someone’s name, two words, and Lana had already turned over four S’s (S_ss_ _ _s) after the first player’s turn. The hint was “trouble for the Democrats,” but everyone seemed stumped.

This must have been a flashback dream, as I imagine that pols from New York to California now know there’s a new sheriff over at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) — Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) —and he’s about to clean up some messes.

It’s a surprise that more people don’t already know about Sessions. He’s arguably one of the more successful Republican campaigners of the past decade. He first won a Texas suburban seat stacked with rural Democrat interlopers. But then he kicked it up a notch by besting Martin Frost, a man who considers himself one of the Democrats’ premier campaigners and strategists. I remember a conference call in late 2003 or 2004 where the Sessions campaign hooked me up with some of the inside-the-Beltway newsletter writers. My quest was to convince them that Sessions had a chance against Frost. They wouldn’t hear it. Frost had firmly convinced the Washington handicapping establishment of his prowess in turning out his voters.

Zoom ahead to 2008. Sessions, passed over for the NRCC chairmanship earlier, is doing his own thing one race at a time, helping fellow Texan GOPer Pete Olson challenge incumbent Rep. Nick Lampson (D). All the insiders see wily ole Nick taking young Olson down. Instead, Lampson falls. Sessions finally gets his due at the NRCC, is named chairman, and sets out to win the New York-20 special election. While Sessions had to concede that close race recently, he exceeded all expectations. And looking beneath the numbers reveals that once again, there are signs Sessions ladled on a “special sauce” in the race that will more often than not provide a winning margin for Republicans.

Pete Sessions has a team. He’s not just a lone ranger. The squad coached by Sessions is captained by Guy Harrison, his former top aide who now serves as NRCC executive director. Stars of the team include hard-hitting operative Chris Homan, media strategist Brad Todd and data guru Kevin Burnette, among others. These guys know how to do campaigns. Just ask Martin Frost. If they had gotten hold of the Jim Tedisco campaign more firmly earlier on, Sessions would have had a winner. The early absentee votes that Republicans cast for Democrat Scott Murphy were decisive. If those Republicans had waited to vote on Election Day, Tedisco would have finally been on message and won their votes.

I don’t want to give away the recipe for the Team Sessions special sauce, but can provide a few hints. Consider that Tedisco kept the margin razor-thin, despite the massive turnout. Pre-election pundits defined “high turnout” as 22 to 24 percent of the electorate. The final tally went far beyond that. Well, then, why was the race so close? Aren’t Democrats supposed to thrive in high-turnout elections?

Here is where Sessions’s team has picked the lock. They are all about turnout. I shouldn’t divulge confidential secrets, but can quote from a public source: a Nov. 4, 2004 Dallas Morning News article, “Turnout strategy propelled Sessions.” The lead paragraph says that Sessions’s strategy “was simple: Turn out the vote in neighborhoods that supported him the most.” There it is, Democrats. See if you can reverse-engineer that news.

It is so reassuring to finally have committee leadership that has earned its spurs by smartly winning tough races. Too often, campaign committee chairmanships go to safe-seat incumbents. Republican campaigners across America will be in good company with the clever and battle-proven Team Sessions.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.