EXCLUSIVE: Interview With New NRCC Chairman

The only major contested position in the House Republican hierarchy was the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (NRCC).  Even for that post, when Republican lawmakers met to elect leaders earlier this month, there was no up-or-down vote on who would be their field commander in the midterm elections of 2010.  

After a year when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outspent its Republican counterpart by a margin of 4-to-1 and Republicans suffered a net lost of twenty House seats, present NRCC Chairman Tom Cole decided he had had it.  After insisting for weeks he would run again for the campaign post, Cole withdrew and graciously endorsed his leading opponent for NRCC chairman two years ago:  Texas Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas.

“We’re going to develop some new energy as we find our footing while Democrats have all the marbles,” Sessions told me two days after his election.  “They are not going to do anything half-way on their agenda.  Not when they control everything.  They’ll try to do it all, relying on taxing, spending, and regulating the market place.”  But the ever-upbeat Texan quickly added that whenever Democrats do have total control, “be it with a mayor and City Council or a governor and both houses of the state legislature, they do try to do it all.  And the consequences almost always run investors out of town and have a profound effect on daily life in America.  That’s when the voters turn to us, the Republicans.”  

As to what his primary goals are as NRCC chairman, Sessions replied without hesitation:  “Better fund-raising and delivering our message a lot better.”

After twelve years in Congress, Sessions’ move into the chairmanship is yet another case of where tenacity has paid off in his life.  The son of former FBI Director William S. Sessions, one-time telephone company executive and Boy Scout troop leader had made two losing bids for Congress.  

In 1994, he lost a heart-breaking close race to liberal Democratic Rep. John Bryant.  In that race, the combative Republican drove a truck full of manure (“the manure tour”) throughout Bryant’s district and said that was what the big-spending Democratic Congress smelled like.  Sessions also campaigned as an unapologetic social conservative, noting that one of his sons was born with Down Syndrome and that “I could never be anything but strongly pro-life.”  Two years later, obviously nervous about facing Sessions in a rematch, Bryant chose to go double or nothing and run for the Senate (he lost the primary).  Sessions roared into Congress and has since won re-election with ease.  

Two years ago, the Texas lawmaker placed second in a three-candidate race for NRCC chairman won by Cole, onetime Oklahoma Secretary of State and top political operative for the Sooner State’s Republican Gov. Frank Keating.  

Coming into the NRCC helm, Sessions understands this — and is confident about the future.

“San Francisco Democrats” — and the “Illinois Model”

GOPer Sessions is willing to use strong language to describe life in Speaker Pelosi’s House.  In many ways Sessions’s rhetoric when talking about the Democrats  is strikingly akin to the confrontational rhetoric of Newt Gingrich and the Conservative Opportunity Society toward then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D.-Mass.) in the 1980’s.

“I used to say that the Democratic Party was a wholly-own subsidiary of the AFL-CIO,” said Sessions, “But after serving with Speaker Pelosi, I would amend that to say that it is not just the AFL-CIO that owns the Democratic Party, but the San Francisco Democrats of which the speaker is a product.”  

“That’s what we as Republicans have to face and fight.”

The new NRCC chief also cited as another example of Democrats holding “all the marbles” what he called the “Illinois model.”  Noting that Democrats in Barack Obama’s home-state have controlled the governorship and both houses of the state legislature for several years, Sessions pointed out that “for every new job that has been created there, 1.2 jobs have been lost.  With the way they have taxed employees and employers, Illinois Democrats have not just savaged the free enterprise system, but tamed it and stuck a fork in it.”

Regarding the Democratic economic agenda, Sessions recalled how “John McCain caught a lot of flack for calling it socialism.  Yet what is in the Democratic platform nets out to more government jobs and certainly not more free market jobs.  Tax cuts create more jobs and this is something we as Republicans have to do a better job of marketing.”

The overall message Republicans must convey in the House and in the 2010 midterm elections, he believes, is that “we are the party of jobs, freedom, and protecting the liberties we have well into the future.”

Repeal McCain-Feingold and Recruit Candidates

In spelling out the message and brand his party should convey, Sessions did not yet want to deal with specifics on what he would do as chairman.  As he told me, “Tom Cole is still chairman until the new Congress convenes in January and I respect that.”

However, the incoming NRCC chairman did second the recent decision of Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan to file a suit to overturn the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation.  Under the law enacted by Congress in ’01, political committees have been limited in what they can do for candidates, the kind of money they can accept, and even in how they expend their own resources on behalf of federal office-seekers.  In this year’s cycle, the NRCC took some sharp hits from conservatives when they learned that the committee was cutting off funding for well-known right-of-center GOP leaders such as Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann (who won) and Florida’s Tom Feeney (who lost).  

Cole explained that these decisions were made not by him but by an “IE [Independent Expenditure] Unit” that operated outside the NRCC headquarters and independently of the committee.  That was what McCain-Feingold had dictated, Cole said.

His successor as NRCC chairman hit this hard.  In seconding Duncan’s attempt to overturn the campaign finance law, Sessions said that “he wisely recognizes that when you legislate rule and freedom of expression as McCain-Feingold has done, you have empowered those who wish to corner the market place with their own ideas.”  He noted that his home state of Texas permits donations to state candidates in unlimited amounts and requires disclosure.  As for his ideal for contributions to federal candidates and party committees, Sessions believes “every single dollar and resource should be freely given and expressed legally as to its intended proposed.  Every organization such as ours should limit itself and set its own parameters.  The law should not.”

In pursuing his agenda as NRCC chairman, Sessions said he would also seek to recruit candidates who have run before and lost to try again — just as he did.  

“[Unsuccessful candidates] bring to the table experience,” he said, “and Americans understand the tradition of staying until you get something right and get it done.”