A less gloomy view of GOP House prospects

Rep. Tom Cole, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says voters in districts with open GOP seats will still vote Republican. But he acknowledges challenges for the November election.

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It's Tom Cole's job, as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, to show the glass as at least half full.

While outside observers predict an uphill battle for Republican candidates for the House of Representatives in the 2008 election, Congressman Cole is pushing a more positive view of the GOP's prospects, even though open Republican seats outnumber open Democratic ones and the Democrats have raised more money to support their House candidates.

"There is no reason we should approach this election with a lot of concern," he said at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast with reporters on Monday. "My biggest single concern in the election is Republican morale.... Republicans are so much like Eeyore [in "Winnie-the-Pooh], I can't hardly believe it. Oh, it is terrible, everything is awful…."

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Despite Cole's wry observation, Republican concerns appear warranted. Here is how the nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently summarized the situation for House Republicans:

"Control of the House beyond 2008 does not appear to be in question. Clearly, most Republicans outside of the party's spin room view the prospect of regaining the majority as a longer-term proposition. Instead, the real question is whether the GOP can hold the election to something near a wash or Democrats are poised for another double-digit gain.

"Everyone knows that the open-seat situation [25 for the GOP versus six for Democrats] is dreadful for Republicans, and that the lopsidedness of the retirement count represents a serious initial disadvantage for the minority party."

Asked about that analysis, Cole said, "If you just look at politics by the numbers, that's a fair analysis of where we are." But the fifth-generation Oklahoman argued that the number of open seats tied to retiring House lawmakers does not tell the whole story.

"We do have a short-term challenge in terms of the open seats, but most [voters in the affected districts] are going to vote Republican. They are not going to vote Democrat in a highly charged presidential year," he said. "Look, our worst environment was '06; it is not now. And you don't get two of those in a row."

Cole, who has headed the campaign committee since November 2006, also played down the importance of the fundraising advantage Democrats currently enjoy. Through the end of January, the NRCC had raised $53.3 million for the coming election versus $71.2 million raised by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But as reporters huddled around him after the formal breakfast ended, Cole quipped, "If money could keep you in power, we'd still be in power."

One reason the NRCC has had trouble raising money lately is that Cole announced Feb. 1 he had notified law-enforcement authorities of "irregularities in our financial audit process" at the committee. The NRCC has retained the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to do a forensic audit to determine what went wrong.

Beyond financial challenges, the NRCC faces strong anti-incumbent sentiment. "The fewer people you know here [in Washington], the better off you are as a candidate this year," Cole said.

Having John McCain as the Republican presidential nominee will be helpful in House races, Cole said. "We stumbled around and actually nominated our strongest general election candidate," he said of the GOP primaries.

"The Democratic Party right now is in an incredible war between its head and its heart," Cole said. "Its head is telling it go with that smart, tough woman. Its heart is telling it let's put the Clinton-Bush era behind us, it's time for a new generation."

As head of the NRCC, Cole is hardly an unbiased observer. That said, he argued that Senator Clinton, not Senator Obama, would be the Democrats' strongest candidate against Senator McCain.

"I used to be a state senator and I've got to tell you when I looked around the room I didn't see anybody ready to be president of the United States in three years … this guy is literally the least experienced candidate since Wendell Willkie." Willkie was the Republican candidate who ran against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. He lost the Electoral College vote 82 to 449.

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