After special election losses in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee has faced questions about his judgment, his tactics, his employees and even his job.
No one — no one — thinks he can lead the GOP back to the majority in November.
“I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the conference to have this job,” Cole says.
The Oklahoma congressman — a Ph.D. in British history — quotes the poet Macaulay:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.
Cole may not be fighting for the ashes of his fathers, but he’s certainly been raked across the coals.
He denies reports that members of the Republican conference have asked him to resign, but he was forced this week to accept a number of changes at the NRCC. He’ll have to deal with a new consultant brought in from the outside, an advisory committee that will cut into his authority and a series of audits that will probe the GOP’s recent losing streak.
Back home in the Sooner State, where Republicans now enjoy a 13-seat advantage in the legislature, folks are still talking about all that Cole has done for the GOP.
“In Oklahoma,” says former state party Chairman Chad Alexander, “the current majority of Republican politicians are enjoying living in the house that Tom Cole built.”
It was Cole who ran the 1994 special election campaign of Frank Lucas, who replaced a Democratic predecessor and ultimately greased the skids for the Republican Revolution. It was Cole who helped put Rep. Tom Coburn and former Rep. Steve Largent in the House of Representatives later that year. It was Cole who helped make current Rep. Mary Fallin the first female lieutenant governor of Oklahoma and former Rep. J.C. Watts the most recent black Republican congressman.
But they aren’t talking about any of that in Washington these days.
On Capitol Hill, Cole has become the GOP’s favorite whipping boy: He erred in not getting involved in Republican primaries; he blew it in Louisiana and Mississippi by trying to nationalize races and tie Democratic candidates to Sen. Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; he hasn’t done enough to help Republicans escape from the “albatross” of the GOP brand.
Cole gets high marks from former colleagues in the campaign consulting business, and even his detractors will readily acknowledge that he’s a first-rate manager of individual races. In 2006, he edged out Texas Rep. Pete Sessions for the NRCC chairmanship, by dint and reputation of this campaign expertise.
Sessions had a much more expansive network of support among colleagues on Capitol Hill and lobbyists downtown. Cole, meanwhile, prefers to huddle with a small group of top aides and close outside advisers, and maintains his strongest bonds with colleagues in the Oklahoma delegation. That dearth of tight-knit allies has made it more difficult for him to deflect the Beltway sniping that has beset him.
When House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) pushed Cole to remove his top two generals last year, he threatened to quit until the minority leader backed off. But ever since, members, aides and outside lobbyists have been grumbling about committee operations.
Those in the campaign community argue that Cole has not done enough to expand the map of competitive seats to help Republicans improve their chances of gaining on Democrats in the fall. However, a wave of GOP retirements has made that task nearly impossible, and blame for those departures is directed more at Boehner than atthe campaign chairman. The more fundamental complaints fall on Cole’s top aides.
But the chairman has been the victim of some problems that started on his predecessors’ watch. It was left to him earlier this year to report on the humiliating foul-up wrought by former treasurer Christopher J. Ward, who allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the NRCC.
“These are not problems that you’ve created by your own hand,” says Clinton Key, a close adviser to Cole at the NRCC. “These are things you inherited.”
Cole’s mother, a state politician, ran for the Oklahoma House in 1978 and lost. Cole promised her that if she ever decided to run again, he’d work like the dickens to get her elected. Eventually she did, and they won.
From there, he went on to serve as chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, then moved to Washington in 1991 to become executive director of the NRCC. After his stint there, he returned to Oklahoma, where he served in the state legislature and opened up a political consulting shop. His success as a campaign manager and consultant was derived from his ability to select good candidates, which has only compounded the frustration colleagues say he’s felt this year.
“The interesting thing about Tom,” says Cole’s former district director, John Woods, “is that for things that are in his control, even if they fail, they don’t bother him. The thing that frustrates him the most is when there are external factors outside his control that still affect the deeming of his ability at the helm.”
Those who have known the congressman over the years say he well anticipated what he was getting into when he took over the reins of the NRCC and that he didn’t bat an eye. Now he’s forced to shield his face.
“We knew we were going to be in a tough cycle,” says Cole. “We knew we were starting well behind in terms of the size of our debt and nature of rebuilding job. … A lot of people thought we could snap back quicker than we have. I didn’t think we could.”
Cole says he won’t think about his own future until after the election cycle.
“If I had my druthers, he’d go home and run for governor in 2010,” says Frank Keating, the former Oklahoma governor for whom Cole served as campaign chairman and secretary of state. “And I hope he does, because I’d love to see it. But I don’t think anybody else would want Tom’s job right now. It’s virtually an impossible task.”