A Case of the Blues
This article will appear in this Sunday's Times Magazine.
The Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole is 58 years old, but he has never been famous before, and after this year, he will most likely never be famous again. Even this kind of fame, brief and slight, is uncomfortable on him. Cole is a party man, a lifelong Republican consultant, campaign worker and politician whose career, like that of a typical European Social Democrat, has recognized only a fluid and fungible line between political operative and elected official. It sometimes seems an accident he’s in Congress at all. He is tall and slightly formal, and slightly awkward; people who meet him casually describe him as cordial or gentlemanly. The Republican Party, in its current uncertainty, might have chosen an ideologue to fill Cole’s post or, as is its habit, a money man. Its choice of Cole, an operative, was the establishment insisting that its own learned habits were enough to save itself. “Right now, with where we are,” Ken Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me, “Tom Cole is the perfect leader.”Cole is a year into his term as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the group charged with managing the party’s simultaneous campaigns for 435 seats in Congress, and this role has made him responsible for rebuilding the Republican Party from the ground up, and for mounting a defense of the political map...
Going into the 2008 elections, Cole faces a daunting list of challenges. To date, 29 of his party’s representatives in Congress have retired, an unusually large number, leaving open politically marginal seats that incumbents might have held but which will be more difficult for challengers to defend — Deborah Pryce’s seat in Columbus, Ohio; Mike Ferguson’s in central New Jersey; Heather Wilson’s around Albuquerque; Thomas M. Reynolds’s in Buffalo. Reynolds, Cole’s predecessor at the N.R.C.C., just narrowly held his seat in 2006. Rick Renzi, a Republican congressman from Arizona, was indicted last month on federal corruption charges, putting what was another safe Republican seat in play. These vacancies mean that in a year when, by historical standards, his party would be expected to win back seats, Cole will have to defend many more seats than he will be able to attack (only six Democratic incumbents have announced they are leaving office). His committee has approximately $5 million on hand, roughly one-eighth the amount of cash on hand as its Democratic counterpart, which at latest count had $38 million.
...the National Republican Congressional Committee recently discovered, during an internal audit, accounting fraud so extensive that it had to call in the F.B.I., which is now investigating embezzlement by the committee’s former treasurer. Many conservative activists have become so dissatisfied with the party’s heresies, particularly on immigration and government spending, that as Cole’s staff took over, the committee’s fund-raising pleas were being ignored and, on at least one occasion, returned in an envelope stuffed with feces....
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