Rep. Tom Cole: 'Everyone Wants to Take Sarah to the Prom'

The results of my interviews last weekend with the chairmen of both the House and the Senate Republican campaign committees were vastly different from what they had to say about the GOP’s chances in the ’08 congressional races less than three months ago.

Earlier in the summer, both National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) were playing defense.  It looked like a dreadful year for Republicans.  Ensign had pointed to the fact that there were twice as many Republican senators facing the voters as Democrats.  Cole’s excuse for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s fund-raising advantage of seven-to-one over the NRCC was the ongoing revelations of malfeasance by the committee treasurer he had inherited.

“It doesn’t help when you have a treasurer who is a complete crook,” was the much-quoted line with which Cole opened our interview.  

But what a difference three months, a debate over energy, and Sarah Palin make. 

Last weekend, the chairmen of the Republican House and Senate campaign committees both beamed with optimism about where their parties now stood less than fifty days before the balloting.  

In terms of fund-raising, Cole pointed out that the NRCC “is now probably trailing the [DCCC] by four-to-one, which is very different from the seven-to-one edge they had when we last talked.”  Ensign told me that “we have $7 million on hand — we’ve conserved our money and the Democrats spent a lot more of theirs.  We planned to bring in $3 million in August and we got $5 million.  And we have a lot of new donors.”

But clearly, it was a dose of “Palin-cillin” that both Cole and Ensign pointed to as the fuel that is energizing Republicans at the grass roots level.  

“I’d Have Palin Campaign for All of Our Candidates.” — John Ensign

When I reminded John Ensign that he had told the Christian Science Monitor press luncheon in June that his party would probably have a net loss of three Senate seats from its 49-seat minority in the Senate, the Nevada senator quickly corrected me:  “What I actually said at the Monitor lunch was that we’d be lucky to come out of November with a loss of three seats.”  

But Ensign is not saying that these days.  On Friday, he referred to three Senate races in which momentum was now clearly on the Republican side: “Right now, we have Colorado [Republican Sen. Wayne Allard is retiring] where [Republican] Bob Schaffer is in a dead heat with [Democratic Rep.] Mark Udall; New Mexico [Republican Sen. Pete Domenici is retiring], where [Republican Rep.] Steve Pearce is starting to come up against [Democratic Rep.] Tom Udall; and Louisiana, where [Republican] John Kennedy is in a close race with [Democratic Sen.] Mary Landrieu.”  

The NRSC chief also predicted that New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu would win his rematch with Democratic former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and that Republican incumbents were in strong shape in Alaska, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, and Mississippi (in which appointed Republican Sen. Roger Wicker’s race against Democratic former Gov. Ronnie Musgrave “has moved markedly in our direction,” according to Ensign).  

“Momentum is clearly on our side,” Ensign told me, “and it was starting to move our way before the energy issue intensified and before Sarah Palin.”

But John McCain’s tapping of the Alaska governor “clearly fired up our side,” said the senator.  He recalled how he joined Palin in Carson City, Nevada for a rally the week before and, in his words, “[I]t was remarkable.  Between 6-to-8000 people were there and it was not just the numbers but the frenzy.”

(Over the weekend, I was deluged with similar anecdotal stories about “Palin Power.”  Colorado Senate nominee Schaefer, for example, told me of being the “warm-up speaker for a crowd of 15,000 in Colorado Springs before McCain and Palin spoke.  Later, when I worked the crowd, I met a lot of people who aren’t the normal types for a Republican rally.  They said they were there because of Sarah.”  Thomas Klunzinger, chairman of the McCain-Palin campaign in Ingham County, Mich., told me how “people are coming to the ‘victory’ headquarters every day and asking for yard signs but insisting they say ‘McCain-Palin’ and not just ‘McCain.’”)

“I’d have her campaign for all our candidates,” Ensign said of Palin, “Everybody wants her, and everybody would take her.”

“Everyone Wants to Take Sarah to the Prom.” — Tom Cole

When I spoke to Tom Cole Saturday morning, we talked at length about the fast-breaking developments involving the proposed $700 billion financial bailout that he and his Republican colleagues had been briefed on by Secretary of the Treasury Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Bernanke the day before.

“This has not been a good week for us, and this economic stuff has not been helpful,” Cole told me, putting on his hat as campaign chief for House GOPers.  In emphasizing that lawmakers should not make judgments until the details of the bailout package are public, the NRCC chairman also said that “energy may not be as important an issue now” and the economic uncertainty was “probably helping the Democrats.”

But, Cole quickly added, “the longer we stay in session working on this, the more people are reminded who is in charge here.  Democrats would like to get out of town so folks don’t remember who is in charge.”  For his part, Cole told me, “[O]bviously it would mean a loss of campaign time, but I prefer to take time to make what I feel will be the most consequential vote of my career.”

Prior to the economic news, Cole said, “[T]he convention and the choice of Sarah Palin caused some pretty dramatic movement for us.  And I give John McCain a lot of credit for picking her.  We’ve gone from 15-to-18 points behind in the generic poll of whether voters prefer Republicans or Democrats for Congress to between three-to-seven.  We’ve got a battlefield situation now, and I credit Sarah Palin for a lot of that.  She’s very conservative, an historic figure — everyone wants to take Sarah to the prom.  But more importantly, there’s a sense of authenticity about her and her promise of ‘shaking up Washington.’”

As it was in the Senate races, the anecdotal stories by House candidates illustrate Palin’s grassroots appeal.  Former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker John Gard, who is running in the Badger State’s 8th District against Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen, said he was going to meet Palin at a rally in Green Bay that evening and asked whether I would run his picture with her in any story I did on his race.  When I asked Republican Tom Rooney, who is opposing Rep. Tim Mahoney (D.-Fla.), who he had coming to campaign for him, he replied without hesitation: “I’m trying to get Sarah Palin!”