Greg Walden is hardly a household name. But the bespectacled Oregonian may have more to do with helping his party maintain its grip on Washington than most Republican heavyweights.
As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee for the past two cycles, Walden helped Republicans win and preserve a historic majority.
He’s spent 281 nights on the road and logged the mileage equivalent of 10 trips around the world, visiting districts across the country and raising nearly $8 million for the committee since becoming chairman in 2012.
And now, with election night behind him, the nine-term member, who grew up on an 80-acre cherry orchard, is ready for his next move. He’s vying against a member with more seniority for the gavel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“You’ve got to take care of your NRCC chairman,” said former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, himself a former chairman of the group who went on to beat several members with more seniority to take the helm of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Rewarding successful chairmen is important, Davis said, because it sends a message to members to pay their dues and support their team.
Walden knows about cajoling members. The Eagle Scout and former DJ previously worked as a Hill staffer and campaign manager.
“He’s very well-versed in the whole 360 of the campaign and the 360 of the issue set we’re dealing with,” said Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, who, like Walden, served as a campaign staffer before entering Congress.
But sometimes, said NRCC Executive Director Rob Simms, there are things only a member can tell another member.
Walden is the only Republican member of Oregon’s congressional delegation, representing the state’s 2nd District. But he’s a moderate compared to many members of his conference. The conservative Club for Growth gave him only a 40 percent score for 2015.
Walden’s more moderate position in the party has been crucial to his success, according to Davis, because it gave him a deeper understanding of this country’s swing districts. “That’s where the battle lines are,” Davis said.
Comstock, re-elected to a second term last week, recalled being targeted early last year and working with Walden right away.
“For those of us in those districts, he understands what it’s like,” she said, noting that Walden added an extra stop to her moderately red district the week before Election Day.
His GOP colleagues, past and present, describe Walden as congenial, calm and thoughtful. “He has no ego,” said former New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, who came into Congress with Walden in 1999 and also chaired the NRCC.
“I squared off against Greg in the 2014 cycle,” New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an email. “I found him to be a worthy adversary, strategically cunning but also someone who generated two-way respect.”
Walden started his chairmanship with a stern message.
“He said from the very beginning, we basically need to be able to up our game,” Simms said. The Democrats had won control of the White House and Congress with an impressive data and digital strategy, and Walden — a numbers guy — wanted to “match the Democrats and beat them at their own game,” he said.
Walden’s focus on metrics stems from his days in the radio business, where ad sales are king. In 2012, the committee raised only $1.8 million online. In 2016, its online haul had approached $12 million.
“The results [last] Tuesday were a culmination of those efforts,” said Simms, who has spent two cycles at the committee with Walden. “It showed that he was right.”
Republicans were on defensive this year. Of the 40 competitive House seats, 33 of them were GOP-held. Combined with an unpredictable GOP presidential nominee, who looked to be toxic with female and moderate voters, it could have been a rough night for congressional Republicans. But the GOP lost just seven competitive seats, while knocking off one of three vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
Walden gets credit from his colleagues for using data and localizing races to avoid what was once feared as the down-ballot drag of the party’s presidential nominee Donald Trump.
But Republicans’ success last week wasn’t all about superior strategy; they benefited from the Trump victory no one saw coming.
“Donald Trump provided the kind of coattails that got a lot of people over the finish line,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said after the election.
Prior to entering Congress, Walden worked as an aide to former Oregon Rep. Denny Smith, then served in the Oregon state House and Senate. Before chairing the NRCC for the 2014 cycle, Walden was deputy chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm for the 2012 and 2010 cycles.
The former radio talk show host maintains offices and schedules for both his role in Congress and NRCC chairman. Balancing both jobs, Reynolds said, reflecting on his own experience, “is like going through life in double time.”
“Greg is the hardest working man in show business,” Simms deadpanned.