What Dems did right

Republican strategists, candidates and commentators have finished an exhausting week of finger-pointing as they seek to explain just what went wrong last Tuesday. Everyone knows it wasn’t his or her fault and is busily trying to lay the blame elsewhere.

Republican strategists, candidates and commentators have finished an exhausting week of finger-pointing as they seek to explain just what went wrong last Tuesday. Everyone knows it wasn’t his or her fault and is busily trying to lay the blame elsewhere.

Congressional  Republicans are blaming Iraq, Karl Rove and the president while White House types point out that they were bucking history and a bunch of congressional stumble-bums who couldn’t keep their hands off the money, their wives and mistresses or even the pages in their midst.

They are all right, of course, as this was a cycle in which just about everything that could go wrong did in fact go wrong. Iraq was a real drag, as was the performance of candidates who should have been better than they were and campaign managers who weren’t really prepared for what they should have known was coming.

None of this, however, should detract from the fact that the Democrats did a better job picking candidates, raising money and even getting out their vote than most folks thought possible. They weren’t shy about recruiting candidates who differed with the party establishment on hot-button issues like gun control, abortion and taxes if they thought they had a better chance of winning those districts that are home to men and women who had previously rejected what might be called the established Democratic position on these and other issues.

Democratic congressional leaders may believe that the men and women they recruited will abandon their campaign stances and march in lockstep with their leaders once they get to Washington, and they may get them to do just that, but seeking out candidates who would better “fit” districts and states in which they were running paid real dividends last week.

As the wounded and dying Republicans limp back into town today for a few final votes, those who were smart enough, tough enough or lucky enough to survive have to figure out what to do next. That means selecting new leaders. The Senate has Mitch McConnell (Ky.), but Republicans in the House will face a contest to find someone who can pull their smaller but politically more conservative caucus back together and rebuild the brand that made Republicans so tough to beat for the last decade.

Conservatives hope that leader will be Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, but he’s going to need help if he wins. Developing a legislative strategy for a minority is one thing, but selling it to the public and figuring out just how to take back the House in today’s world is something else.

The Democrats won this time by putting the most effective professional strategist in their caucus in charge of the DCCC. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) wasn’t given the job he did so well because he was the most popular guy in the caucus, but because he was the one Democratic member who knew best what needed to be done to win. The Republicans weren’t as fortunate and if they want to win next time they’re going to have to take a page from the Democrats’ book.

Fortunately, they won’t have to look far to find whom they need. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma is running for the chairmanship of the NRCC and is the single member within the GOP caucus with the professional expertise and background to play in the same league with the team the Democrats have put together.

Cole is a rock-solid conservative with a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union who has literally done it all. He ran his own polling and consulting firm in Oklahoma, and before getting himself elected state senator, secretary of state and, finally, congressman, he served as both executive director and chairman of the Oklahoma Republican party.

What’s more, Cole ran the NRCC itself as executive director during the 1992 cycle when the GOP picked up House seats while losing the White House to Bill Clinton. Later he went on to serve as chief of staff at the Republican National Committee and is highly regarded by all who know him.

It’s the nature of these contests that other members will look at this and other openings within the House leadership, but as members decide, they have to know that they need someone with Cole’s experience and understanding of how campaigns are actually run in today’s world if they really want to win back a majority in 2008.

There are others in the caucus who care as much as Cole, but no one else with the tools to do for his party what Emanuel did for his — and Cole is a lot easier to like.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).