Rep. Tom Cole on the GOP Dilemma

“When you’ve gone more than four years with a crook as treasurer and you’ve come off the worst mid-term elections since Watergate, you know you’ve sunk pretty low.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R.-Okla.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was referring to the scandal surrounding former NRCC Treasurer Christopher Ward (in which more than $1 million in committee money was unaccounted for) and the ’06 elections, in which Republicans lost control of both Houses of Congress.  But the head of the campaign arm for House Republicans did not blame either for the loss of three straight special elections in Republican districts and the polls showing Democrats headed for big gains in Congress this fall.

Instead, Cole told us, the low poll numbers and successive special election defeats mean “voters have lost confidence in Republicans” and “are no longer sure we mean what we say anymore.”  In a long and provocative interview Friday, the veteran campaign operative and four-term lawmaker addressed both the criticism his party has been receiving since the defeat three days ago for the seat formerly held by Mississippi’s Republican Sen. Roger Wicker as well as the calls by some colleagues for a change in leadership — including that of Cole himself over the NRCC.

A day after the capture of Mississippi’s formerly Republican 1st District by  Democrat Travis Childers, one Republican House Member told me that the chances of a “palace coup” against Cole were “probably one in three.” 

“Well, as I told someone today, if they’re smart enough to do it, they are smart enough not to do it,” Cole told me, adding that he has heard some talk about unnamed colleagues calling for his head (“I’ve read it in the papers, but no one has said anything to me”) and does not believe it is an issue.  In his words, “scape-goating a problem won’t help.  The problem we [Republicans] have is bigger than local circumstances.  And we’ve got to come to grips with it”

The lessons learned from Childers’ 54% to 46% defeat of Republican Greg Davis in the Mississippi House race, Cole said, are that “voters have lost confidence in Republicans [and] are not sure we mean what we say, that “it’s not enough to say what you’re against.”  Saying he agreed with critical memos on where the party is now by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and by former NRCC Chairman Tom Davis (VA), Cole said “we need to take a good long look in the mirror” and said he would be in Washington over the weekend for a series of meetings on what the party must do to bounce back. 

“We’re too oriented toward process and not oriented enough toward specific issues,” said Cole, a former secretary of state of Okahoma and himself a past operating head of the NRCC in the 1990’s.  As for the critical memos by Gingrich and Davis and an earlier and highly critical speech on the House floor about the direction of the party by Rep. Thad McCotter (R.-Mich.), the Sooner State congressman said he did not resent any of them because, “as my father once told me, ‘your friends tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear.’”

Although Cole did not get into specific issues the party needed to recapture, he did point to conservatives who ran on cogent platforms, communicated well, and won.  He cited Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal and Rep. and special election winner Steve Scalise (who easily won Jindal’s former New Orleans House seat on the same day fellow GOPer Woody Jenkins lost the special election for the Baton Rouge district May 3), who were big Republican winners running on conservative platforms.  “They cleaned the Democrats’ clock,” said Cole.  The same was true of ’07 special election winners and conservative Republican Reps. Robert Wittman (VA) and Bob Latta (OH), he noted.

A problem for Republicans in losing Mississippi and Louisiana special elections this month, Cole pointed out, “has been Democrats running like us.  [Childers] did a television ad in which he said he was pro-life, pro-gun, wants to cut taxes, and supports our troops.  Well, Democrats who say this are either intellectually dishonest or politically disingenuous because you can’t be for those things and cast your first vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker.”  (As for the election of Obama Democrat Bill Foster in the Illinois district relinquished by former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Cole said “that was another district and other kinds of problems,” chief among them a divisive GOP primary in which the loser did not endorse the nominee).

What is needed to turn things around for his party in congressional elections, Cole concluded, “is a strong agenda that resonates with something,”

Before saying good-bye, the congressional campaign chairman did show he knows how to jab with a political rapier, however, and that Repubicans — in searching for an agenda — would not abjure criticizing Democrats.  As Cole put it, “When Hillary Clinton emerges as a champion of small towns and gun owners, you know the Democratic Party has moved as far to the left in modern times.  A President Obama and a Democratic Congress would take their election as a sign the country has moved left and would raise taxes, enlarge government, implement a radical social agenda, and sit down with the heads of terrorist states sooner than they would with reporters from Fox News.”