Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole is now in his fifth term in the House, but according to Cole he was a somewhat reluctant candidate some 10 years ago. Following a stint in the Oklahoma state legislature, he made a name for himself as one of the GOP’s top strategists and says he was plenty happy as a partner at his firm Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates.
When former Rep. JC Watts (R-Okla.) was poised to retire ahead of 2002, Cole said he pulled out all the stops to try to change his mind. Cole’s last ditch effort—a letter from civil rights icon Rosa Parks to Watts that said, “I didn’t keep my seat 40 years ago so you would give up yours today,” Cole recalls.
In the end, Watts called it quits and Cole left the consulting world for a congressional bid the following fall.
Despite spending the past decade in elected office, Cole hasn’t quite hung up his strategist hat. He still maintains an interest in his firm and doles out plenty of free strategic advice to Speaker John Boehner and the House Republican leadership. If only more of the rank and file would listen.
C&E: So how often do you go into consultant mode with the Republican leadership?
Cole: Always. [Rep.] Kevin McCarthy [R-Calif.] said to me not long ago that wherever politics and policy coincide, he tends to turn to me. This place has a lot of politicians and they’ve all won elections. They wouldn’t be around otherwise. But at the end of the day, I probably have more campaign experience than anyone else in the House. So whether it’s individual campaigns or the impact of national issues, I feel like I have a little bit more of an authoritative voice at the table than most. It doesn’t mean you’re always right, though.
C&E: What’s been your advice? Should more members be in tune with the leadership?
Cole: They absolutely should. The number one thing in an environment like this is to avoid becoming the issue yourself. The president is going to do everything he can to make us the issue. I think sometimes our members play into his hands. People don’t like government very much, so why do we want to be in the news proving how dysfunctional it can be at times? Members should focus on constituent services and just be around. But we’ve got a lot of members, I would argue, who think they’re in the House of Commons. We don’t have all the legislative power.
C&E: You see this lack of collegiality on the Hill now. Does that have an impact?
Cole: I actually disagree profoundly with that. I grew up in the 60s. One president was assassinated, his brother was assassinated, the greatest civil rights leader of the 20th Century was assassinated and there were riots in the streets. The idea that politics is tougher now is just not true. Now, I don’t mean this critically, but if I had to pick something that makes life more difficult it would probably be the role of staff. I do think there’s a measure of collegiality between the members, but I think there’s less between the staff. I’ve seen this with consultants, too. They can make things nastier if they don’t live in town. It helped a lot when consultants were more locally based because the further away they live, the more they tend to come in and pillage.
C&E: We had some campaign managers tell us the opposite recently, arguing for out-of-state folks who don’t worry about parochial interests.
Cole: That’s just totally wrong. First of all, talent level does matter. But my experience with out-of-state managers is that they usually don’t know what they don’t know. You need to know the terrain and the history. Second, they don’t bring anything to the campaign other than being more expensive to hire and house. You need good talent, but I’ve run and won a lot of campaigns in Oklahoma and I’ve done it with kids most of the time. I just want a guy to execute every day. I’ll figure out how to win the race. With old guys like me, if you’re not careful, you can end up telling war stories and drinking into the night, which doesn’t really help the campaign very much. I’d rather have somebody dropping leaflets at 1 a.m. Managerial ability is really what you want and very few managers are worth a damn after they’re about 40 years old.
C&E: What has changed the most in the campaign business from your perspective?
Cole: The range of campaigns now is just so much greater. In 1980, there were only four Republican pollsters in America and almost nobody running for Congress had a pollster. The last time I looked there were about 500 pollsters across the country. Everybody with a computer and some sense of statistics felt like they could do it. I think the more interesting development now are the Super PACs and the associations that can play politics. Having worked for both corporate and political clients, I would love the corporations because they’re not married to anybody. There’s never a spouse at the table. They pay in full and on time and they don’t have to raise their money in $2,500 increments.
I actually worry a little bit about having a deficit of really good candidate consultants because some of the great ones are going to go where the money is. Some of the best talent is out running Super PACs when they ought to be in the debate room with the candidate. We’ve seen some [presidential] candidates who have had some pretty damn bad debates this cycle and it’s made a difference. I’ve seen a number of people that I know are very good that are tied up in Super PACs or outside work where they’re not allowed to communicate directly with candidates and the candidates are suffering for that.
C&E: Was it difficult to separate out consultant from candidate when you ran for Congress?
Cole: It was actually pretty easy for me. I had already built the campaign staff for this race and I was going to be the lead consultant. I was just shifted from lead consultant to the candidate role and we brought in my partner Sharon Caldwell to be the lead consultant. I knew the district very well. We had already run four campaigns there. Strangely enough—my old partner and I were laughing about this recently—I had a primary in 2010 and she said to me, “I think you’re finally out of the consultant mode because it’s the first time I’ve ever seen you not be objective. You were the only one who thought we were in a real campaign and all the rest of us knew we’d get 75 percent.” Now, I don’t really think I was acting with candidate paranoia every step of the way, but I think over time you do begin to slip out of your profession a bit.