“You can’t run an election just against Donald Trump. You actually have to be for something.”

Cole Talks About Challenge Facing Democrats & Why He is Optimistic about GOP Prospects Next Year

WASHINGTON, DC — Over the course of his more-than-three-decade long career in public life, Tom Cole has built a reputation as one of the top strategists and legislative tacticians in America. Both talents were on full display at a breakfast meeting hosted by The Ripon Society yesterday morning, where the Oklahoma lawmaker shared his thoughts not only on the political challenges facing the new Democratic majority, but the reason House Republicans lost their majority and why he remains optimistic about GOP prospects next year.

“It was a referendum election,” Cole stated, referring to the contest last fall. “It was a mid-term on a Republican President. The election was more about President Trump than anything else, whether he was on the ballot or not. We actually went into that election better prepared than I’ve ever seen a majority go into what we knew from the very beginning would be a very challenging time. Nobody’s had a good mid-term since 2002. President Bush was operating in the shadow of 9/11. He was extraordinarily popular, and we were able to defy history and pick up a six congressional seats that year.

“In 2018, we knew we were going to have a tough time and we went into it with something we didn’t have in ’06 or ’08 — a very good record to run on. We were in a period of relative peace in terms of the post-9/11 period and had great prosperity. The Republican Congress had been very consequential — not only in partisan areas like the tax cuts and deregulation, but also frankly if you were sort of in a blue district or a purple district, you could run on veterans’ issues. You could run on the job that we had done in human trafficking.

“There were a whole series of bipartisan things that had been accomplished that didn’t get as much publicity because they weren’t controversial. But they gave you an issue portfolio if you were a Barbara Comstock or someone like that. You could actually run on something that could appeal to your district.”

Cole represents the 4th District of Oklahoma in the House of Representatives, a position he has held since 2003. Prior to his election, he served as Chief of Staff of the Republican National Committee, and spent four years serving as the Oklahoma’s Secretary of State.

He also served as Executive Director of the National Republican Congressional Committee – an organization he touched on in his remarks.

“The NRCC was as well prepared as I’ve ever seen it,” he said of the Committee’s efforts in the 2018 campaign. “My friend Steve Stivers did an unbelievable job, and we had a whole series of weapons we’d never had before. The Congressional Leadership Fund that Speaker Ryan had set up … Believe me, I’ve done a lot of elections, and we’ve never had anything that spent millions of dollars like that.”

The problem that Republicans faced had to do with enthusiasm – not on the part of GOP voters, who were very motivated to vote, but on the part of Democrats, who were more motivated to vote than they ever had been before.

“65% of our voters were anxious to vote in 2010,” he said, pointing to the last time Republicans won back their House majority. “At the same point in 2018, 64% of our people were anxious. So we had enthusiasm at about what we had when we had the greatest victory that the Republicans have enjoyed since 1938.”

Unfortunately for Republicans, the level of enthusiasm among Democrats was even greater.

“In 2010,” Cole stated, “38% of Democrats were anxious to vote in the upcoming election. In 2018, it was 74%. If you go back and look at the numbers, we had the highest off-year turnout since 1912. But both sides showed up in unusual numbers … The real thing was just massive Democratic turnout, and you could see that again and again and again.”

The veteran Republican then turned his attention to the next election and why – despite last fall’s setback — he is optimistic about GOP prospects in the coming year.

“Looking ahead to 2020, you might say, ‘Oh, my gosh — it’s going to be terrible,” he observed. “I would submit we don’t know yet. And I would submit that for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s not going to be a referendum election. It’s going to be a choice election — and not just about Donald Trump. It’s going to be about who’s on the other side. And as I watch the Democratic field scramble ever further to the left, and I think about campaigning against Medicare-for-All and the abolition of ICE and the Wealth Tax, I kind of like that.

“I think I can make my case pretty well, and I think we could make it frankly in a lot of the swing suburbs we lost. Karen Handel who is a wonderful Member, her district was a 20%+ Romney district, a 1.5% Trump district, is one of the 10 most highly educated districts in America, and is one of the 20 most affluent districts in America. That’s ground we can come back and win in the right kind of presidential year against the right kind of opponent. With 30-odd Trump seats out there, we have a chance …

“There are only three [Republican House members] who are sitting in seats that Hillary Clinton won. So we don’t have a lot of vulnerable seats and the environment will be better. And if anything, our energy level will be higher. So I don’t put it beyond our ability to retake the majority. It would be very unusual to do it, but it’s not impossible to do it.”

Taking off his hat as a political strategist, Cole then put on his hat as a legislative tactician and talked about his new role as the Ranking Member on the House Rules Committee and why the position is so important for Republicans this year.

“It’s the first place where the argument is going to be made about what the Democrats have proposed,” he stated. “Fortunately, we’re going to have a lot to argue against when they finally get their act together.”

As it stands now, he noted, there is not much to argue against.

“Look at this week,” he stated. “What are we dealing with? Suspensions and one rule vote on a veterans issue that we passed unanimously in the last Congress and the Senate didn’t get around to doing. So we’re not fighting anything yet because they aren’t doing anything yet…”

“This is a majority that does not have an agenda. This majority just ran against the President. Didn’t run on much of anything. I guarantee — if you look at a Democrat from a Trump District and AOC, they ain’t the same people. They can’t possibly vote the same way. But the energy in the Democratic Caucus is on the left. And you see Speaker Pelosi, in my view, catering to that energy. In the process, if she’s not careful, she’ll put 30-odd members that she has in a very, very difficult situation.

“If you’re from Oklahoma and you look at the new Green Agenda that’s emerging from the Democratic Party, if you are from an oil and gas state, bring it on. Look, we’re not against alternatives — we get over a third of Oklahoma’s electricity from wind power. But at the end of the day, I sort of doubt that anybody who replaced my good friend Pete Sessions in Dallas or replaced my good friend John Culberson in Houston wants to run on the Green Agenda.

“They’re going to start spitting out stuff pretty quickly that unites Republicans and divides them. You can’t run an election just against Donald Trump. You actually have to be for something. Our job is again to lay down that initial argument. And this is where Speaker Pelosi is in a much more difficult position, I think, than most people recognize.

“The last time she was Speaker, she had a Democratic Senate. And then two years after that, she had a Democratic President. Beginning in 2007, she could put almost anything she wanted on the President’s desk. She can’t do that today.”

Cole concluded his remarks by talking about the President and his State of the Union Address the other night.

“Donald Trump is the most unorthodox, unusual, unconventional political figure I’ve ever seen in my life,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Anybody who tries to predict anything about him is almost always wrong. I have been wrong consistently about the President, and he has surprised me both for good and ill on occasion.

“I did not go into the chamber Tuesday night expecting to hear a conventional Presidential address. But that’s what we heard. That was the best speech he has given since he’s been President of the United States. It was also the first time I’ve seen him actually reach beyond his base to try and do what conventional politicians do. He can’t win the next election with just his base. He’s going to have to bring some other people in. That’s going to require a change in style and tone and temperament, and it’s going to call for defining the enemy. And he did both of those things on Tuesday night. He changed his style a little bit.

“I don’t know any Republican who wasn’t comfortable defending the President after the State of the Union Address. He avoided temptation. In other words, he didn’t take the cheap shot. There was no name calling. He didn’t go off the script. He offered compromise, and he also began defining the opposition. That line about socialism was not an accidental line. It’s also one, by the way, that Leader McCarthy uses quite a bit if you listened to him about redefining where the Democratic Party is. This may not be Ronald Reagan and George Bush’s Republican Party. But I guarantee this isn’t Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party anymore, either.”

To view Cole’s remarks before The Ripon Society breakfast discussion yesterday morning, please click on the link below:

The Ripon Society is a public policy organization that was founded in 1962 and takes its name from the town where the Republican Party was born in 1854 – Ripon, Wisconsin. One of the main goals of The Ripon Society is to promote the ideas and principles that have made America great and contributed to the GOP’s success. These ideas include keeping our nation secure, keeping taxes low and having a federal government that is smaller, smarter and more accountable to the people.