Amongst the wreckage of last Tuesday’s elections, we do have one Republican leader who has managed to emerge with his reputation as a winner intact: Representative Pete Sessions (TX) of the Republican National Congressional Committee. Politico has an article up detailing his methods, and I think there’s something Republicans from the top down could learn from him. First of all, we should note how he began his time at the top of the NRCC:
Sessions began with a bold pronouncement: Republicans would erase the Democratic majority in the midterm elections. It was an approach that not every Republican agreed with — voters, they said, weren’t necessarily ready to turn back the Democrats they had just elected. At a spring 2009 fundraising dinner, Sessions strode to the microphone and told listeners that his singular goal was to “retire Nancy Pelosi” as speaker.
“Boehner was sitting there as the minority leader,” Sessions recalled to POLITICO. “He said, ‘Don’t say that s[**]t.’”
We can see a lot of the problems with today’s Republican establishment in a passage as short as this. Pete Sessions wants to provide bold leadership with victory–winning a majority in the House–as the goal. Meanwhile, other Republicans, including then Minority Leader John Boehner seem content to be playing the loyal opposition in perpetuity. This sort of skittish mindset is what has caused so many of our party’s problems, both in and out of power.
But it’s not just there that we find this skittishness. Politico continues:
The Sessions playbook for putting Republicans in power revolved around identifying Democrats who occupied conservative districts but had not faced serious challenges in years. He took an obsessive — and often personal — focus in decimating the ranks of Blue Dogs.
At one of his first staffwide meetings in 2009, Sessions asked aides if three Blue Dog Democrats from Tennessee — Bart Gordon, John Tanner and Lincoln Davis — could be unseated. The staffers stared blankly. The Democrats, they told him, had long been considered untouchable.
Nonsense, Sessions said. Over the ensuing months, Republicans launched a successful campaign to capture all three of the seats. The NRCC launched TV ad campaigns against Tanner and Gordon, pressuring them into retirement, and notched an upset win over the four-term Davis.
Prior to Rep. Sessions arrival, the NRCC hadn’t seriously contemplated trying to take out three Blue Dog Democrats in Tennessee who Sessions figured were probably more vulnerable than their electoral results suggested. The article doesn’t say if the Republicans at the NRCC felt this way about other Blue Dog Democrats, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the general attitude there.
Of course, like any good leader, he made sure that our side was well prepared, too He made sure to look after the members in his own caucus. Thanks to his own experience in competitive races, he was able to coach and advise vulnerable Republicans. When it comes from a guy who has experience fighting for his seat, as opposed to someone in a safe seat like Boehner or Cantor, that can be remarkably effective. He also knows how to convince long time incumbents like Bill Young of Florida and Frank Wolf of Virginia to stay in their seats for another term.
Finally, Politico gives us a quote from Pete Sessions that all Republican leaders should keep in mind:
“Look, I’ve had a lot of people after me the entire time here. Everybody thinks you can get by by being Mr. Nice Guy, but that’s not what winning programs do. Winning programs have a plan,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t mentally tough enough for this, and they second-guess you.”
The lessons of Mr. Sessions’ time as the head of the NRCC are clear: bold, focused leadership that pays attention to the details and people involved works. He knew what his goal was: restore a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. He never lost sight of that goal. Our Republican leaders could learn something from his example.