Cole Ponders Change of Course

Posted February 23, 2007 at 6:50pm

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) believes a strategy combining the “all races are local” mantra of his predecessor with the nationalized campaign Democrats employed is the way to undo the drubbing the GOP took at the polls this past year.

This cycle the NRCC will spread the wealth among consultants and pollsters, giving political professionals inside and outside the Beltway a crack at consulting contracts, Cole said Friday. Cole did not disavow the localized approach to House races preferred by former NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), but said his 2008 plan will include key elements of a nationalized campaign.

“The ‘you have a national campaign or a local campaign’ is a false dichotomy,” Cole said by telephone from Oklahoma. “There’s no question that good campaigns address both things. I tell our members: ‘Know your locality, but also you are going to have to address the big national issues.’”

Cole already has eschewed Reynolds’ tactic of playing in the occasional Republican primary. He built his own team and generally snubbed top Reynolds’ aides, which made clear he is abandoning the mind-set that recently prevailed at the NRCC. Saying 2008 “unquestionably will be a national election,” Cole is adjusting the committee’s governing political strategy.

Where Reynolds only strayed from “all races are local” in those House districts where the big national issues were of most concern to voters, Cole espouses splitting the difference, running all campaigns with one eye on the national and one eye on the local.

“It’s really about crafting the right message and finding the right balance,” said Cole, a political consultant by trade before being elected to Congress in 2002.

According to one Republican strategist with knowledge of how the NRCC was run during the 2004 and 2006 cycles, Reynolds did rely on national issues when necessary.

Meanwhile, Cole is reviewing the NRCC’s past dealings with political consultants, media firms and pollsters and studying their work product. Some of it was quite good, he said, while some of it needs to be revisited.

Whom Cole chooses to conduct polling, produce direct-mail pieces, television ads and provide general consulting for the committee, could say the most about which strategic direction he will go. In particular, pollsters wield a lot of influence and affect committee tactics the most.

But the Oklahoma Republican — who retains a financial interest in his old consulting firm, Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates — has yet to sign up any firms, and he is in no hurry to do so.

“We’re going to try and spread the work around more broadly,” he said. “That’s no reflection on the people who have done it, but we just think with the number of competitive races we expect to see this cycle, we need to have a big enough range of people so they aren’t overloaded.”

As Cole makes changes, Republican consultants are debating the merits of the “all-races-are-local” path the GOP tread since the 1998 cycle, in light of House Democrats’ 30-seat pickup last year.

Some, citing a shifting media environment and the television viewing habits of voters, contend that the day of the localized House race — even in a non-wave election — is over.

But others, echoing Reynolds, former Republican National Republican Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and White House strategist Karl Rove, say each district must be handled separately, with Republican candidates campaigning on national or local issues according to what is likely to be the most effective.

Glen Bolger, a Republican consultant who specializes in House races, cautioned against reading too much into the results of the 2006 elections, which most political professionals say was unique.

“I think it’s a little bit of a stretch to say this is the end of local politics. All politics has never been local, but it’s not all going to be national, either,” Bolger said. “It depends on how contentious or polarized the national environment is. When it’s less controversial, there will be more of a default to local politics.”

The Republican strategist with knowledge of the NRCC under Reynolds said the committee this past year relied on national issues to win races in campaigns where the Democratic candidate did not have a voting record that could be exploited.

In those cases, Republicans relied on poll-tested attack lines that the Democratic candidate would raise taxes or be weak on border security.

“Localizing is code for giving the people in that district a reason to disqualify your opponent,” this strategist said. “If [the NRCC] had better issues to talk about in that district, it did.”

David Dixon of the Democratic Dixon/Davis Media Group said Democrats will continue to beat the GOP in Congressional elections if the Republican candidates seem detached from the bigger picture, as he believes many appeared to be last year.

“Candidates needed to acknowledge there was a scandal, they didn’t have to do ‘mea culpa’ ads but there was no communication from their side even recognizing there was a problem,” Dixon said.

As to the NRCC’s reliance on tried and true messages, Dixon said voters eventually want to hear something new.

“They went to the well on abortion and gay marriage too many times — they used those issues like doctors use antibiotics to treat children’s ear infections, but sometimes the arithromycin stops working.”