Three Battle for NRCC Chair

Posted May 13, 2005 at 6:33pm

After quietly brewing behind the scenes for months, the race to chair the National Republican Congressional Committee next cycle officially kicked off last week — some 18 months before it will be ultimately decided.

Reps. Tom Cole (Okla.) and Phil English (Pa.) went public with their intention to seek the NRCC post on Friday. GOP sources said Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) is also in the race and actively seeking support, although he has not yet officially declared his candidacy.

Current NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) is in his second cycle heading the House GOP’s campaign arm and, under committee rules, is prevented from running for another term.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter circulated to GOP Members, English acknowledged the early start to the chairmanship race and asked his peers to hear him out as he presents his vision for the committee’s continued success. Republicans have picked up seats in the past two election cycles, defying history by doing so in 2002.

“It is unusually early for a race for this office to begin, and you will have many months to consider the qualifications and plans for each of the candidates,” English wrote.

In an interview Friday, Cole confirmed that he too will seek the NRCC job. The two-term lawmaker said he has spent recent weeks talking to colleagues about the race, securing early commitments and starting to assemble a whip team.

“I’m going to run,” Cole said, adding that his early efforts have “gone exceptionally well.”

One K Street source familiar with the early jockeying described Cole as the furthest along of the three candidates when it comes to laying the groundwork for a bid.

“I think he is the odds-on favorite right now,” said the well-connected lobbyist, adding that Cole has been “working extremely hard” to mine early support.

Cole is a one-time executive director of the NRCC and a former GOP campaign consultant. He made clear that his 25 years of broad experience in political campaigns will be front and center in his pitch to Members.

“I think I’ve probably seen this business from more different angles than most people,” Cole said. “I think in terms of résumé, I’ve got a good one. I’ve got to persuade my colleagues obviously that I’m the right person in what I believe is going to be a very critical election cycle.”

First elected in 2002, Cole estimated that he helped raise $700,000 for other GOP candidates in his freshman cycle, while also raking in $1.1 million for his own campaign.

Meanwhile, a top aide to Sessions said the Texas lawmaker is considering the race but isn’t prepared to toss his hat in just yet.

“We are seriously looking at it,” said Sessions’ chief of staff, Guy Harrison.

Harrison stressed that for the time being Sessions is focused on his job as co-chairman of the NRCC’s incumbent retention program. He also said that the public entry of other candidates in the NRCC race would have little impact on his boss’s plans.

“We believe that the members that have expressed interest, they are respected members of the Conference,” Harrison said. “If there is a race, we look forward to it and showing what Congressman Sessions has done.”

Sessions survived a high-profile contest with fellow Rep. Martin Frost (D) in 2004, after a GOP-engineered redistricting effort forced the Member-versus-Member showdown. Sessions raised and spent more than $4.5 million in that race, including taking in $1.7 million from political action committees. Last cycle he doled out another $250,000 to Republican candidates through his own PAC and handed out a similar amount during the 2002 cycle.

Sessions earned a giant-killer-like status among his colleagues by defeating Frost, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman and party leader — which according to the GOP lobbyist now “makes him bigger than life.”

The five-term lawmaker may also have a geographic advantage in the race if he is able to hold the support of all 20 Republicans currently in the Texas delegation.

Sessions served as a team captain for the NRCC’s annual spring dinner, held in March, and he is serving in the same capacity for the upcoming president’s dinner, a joint House-Senate fundraiser.

All three of the candidates currently hold leadership positions at the NRCC, and all are looking to exploit their previous efforts to help expand the Republican majority as they ramp up their campaigns.

Bob Holste, English’s top aide, stressed his boss’s active involvement with the NRCC in his six terms as well as his proven ability to win in a swing district.

English, who also boasts a lucrative Ways and Means Committee seat, helped lead the incumbent retention program last cycle and remains on the NRCC’s executive board. Last cycle, he raised in excess of $1.3 million for his own re-election and doled out approximately $138,000 to other candidates.

“He has probably the most current, going knowledge of the committee out of the candidates running,” Holste argued.

Holste said that English would have preferred to wait a while longer before going public with his bid, but in the end his hand was forced by the other candidates.

“Once people start campaigning, and asking for commitments, it forces everybody else to move,” he said.

While there is still plenty of time for other candidates to emerge, most observers believe the NRCC field is pretty much set as is.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) is the only other serious name mentioned as a possible NRCC contender, but he is currently contemplating other leadership positions — including a run for Whip when the position becomes available. Many Republican insiders believe Rogers would be difficult to beat if he did decide to seek the NRCC chairmanship.

In the end, the Republican lobbyist argued, the decision about who will next lead the NRCC rests on two things.

“It’s going to come down to who demonstrates who wants it the most,” the lobbyist said, adding that a demonstrated fundraising ability will also be a key criteria. “Each successive NRCC chairman has raised it to the next level, and I think that’s what Members are going to look for.”