The Peter Principle

What they say about Pete Sessions is that he's a hard worker. It took him three tries to get into Congress, but get elected he did in 1996. Then it took him two attempts to win the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee, but maybe that worked out all right; when he missed his chance in 2008, his party was shellacked at the polls. Now Sessions is NRCC chair, the House Republicans' top political operative at a time when his party is poised to take back dozens of seats and likely a majority in the House.

"You think of a party committee chair as a lead tactician who knows where all the bodies are buried and where all the races are," a veteran political reporter observes. "That's not what you get from Sessions."

It's true: They don't say Pete Sessions is bright. His effort to take back the House has been plagued by a near constant series of gaffes. He organized a fundraiser in a Vegas strip club. He called Taliban insurgents a model for the Republican opposition. More recently, in a fumbling appearance on Meet the Press, he suggested Republicans would enact the policy recommendations produced by a roundtable of corporate CEOs. Democrats argued that Sessions was resurrecting the Bush administration. Republicans denied the charge, but Sessions' stance didn't do him -- or his party -- any favors.

Despite these missteps, Republicans will certainly gain seats this fall, not on account of their vision but because of broad dissatisfaction with the economy. If Democrats manage to cling to their majority, it will be because Sessions' Democratic counterpart, Rep. Chris Van Hollen at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, manages to protect a few key seats by out-campaigning Sessions' team and convincing voters to take seriously what Republican candidates are saying -- or, rather, not saying. For the most part, the GOP declines to specify its agenda, instead pushing a simple national policy: "no" to Obama.

Anti-White House narratives in midterm elections are nothing new, of course. When then-DCCC Chair Rahm Emanuel worked to regain a majority in the 2006 election cycle, he emphasized not taking the political climate for granted but instead taking advantage of dissatisfaction with the Bush administration so the Democrats wouldn't miss their opportunity. Republicans today are in the same place: While all signals are go, if they don't make it through the light and seize a majority, they won't have a better chance in 2012. And Sessions, who got his job through diligence and loyalty, may find out just how loyal his fellow Republicans can be.

With his square jaw, gray hair, and Texas twang, Sessions is the everyman of the Republican opposition. He made a 16-year career at Southwestern Bell Telephone, where he rose through the ranks of management and led his local Chamber of Commerce before finishing sixth in a 1991 special election for Congress. (Throughout his career, special elections have not been forgiving to Sessions.) He quit his job to run again in 1994, pulling a trailer full of manure around his district to suggest President Bill Clinton was full of, um, it. But even in that Republican-landslide year, he lost. Only in 1996 did he enter Congress.

Over the past 13 years, he's been known less for his legislative interests than for his tenacious conservatism and fundraising acumen, and his party loyalty earned him a spot on the important House Rules Committee. The former Eagle Scout has had a few brushes with fundraising impropriety; in 2006 he was criticized by corruption watchdogs for his close relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But Sessions doesn't seem to learn. In February 2009, when financier Allen Stanford was indicted for masterminding a Ponzi scheme, the NRCC chair dropped Stanford a note: "I love you and believe in you."

Former Rep. Tom Davis, who was at the helm of the NRCC in 1998 and 2002 -- the latter a rare midterm election when the president's party gained seats -- recalls that Sessions "was the only guy in the delegation who filled in and helped me in finding people to run." Nonetheless, Sessions still lost his first campaign to chair the committee in 2008. Oklahoma's Tom Cole took over instead and offered a lackluster performance in a Democratic year, clashing publicly with Republican Leader John Boehner.

Boehner must have learned something from the discord between leadership and the political committee. When Sessions made clear he was after the chairmanship again for the 2010 elections, Boehner quickly began making calls on his behalf, clearing the field for the Texan. The Republican leader, in a shaky position after losing so many members, cleaned house by installing loyalists in the top leadership positions. He could trust Pete.

One of Sessions' first decisions as chair was to announce that the NRCC would, like its Democratic counterpart, start playing a greater role in primaries -- which might have been wise were this year not marked by an uprising of conservative populists. In an early special election in upstate New York, chaos reigned after the NRCC's preferred nominee, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, won the primary but came under heavy criticism from conservatives. She eventually dropped out of the race and endorsed the Democratic candidate, attorney Bill Owens, who beat conservatives' preferred Tea Party standard-bearer.

Special elections have been the skunk in the room for Republicans all season. Despite a favorable climate, the GOP has failed to capitalize on all of its opportunities to snatch back a Democratic seat but one -- and that came after two Democrats split the vote. It was no way to set an early tone for the fall campaign. Indeed, after one particularly tough loss in the fight to replace the late Rep. John Murtha, criticism within the Republican caucus landed squarely on the NRCC, leading to a late-night come-to-Jesus meeting with senior Republican leaders and outside consultants where Sessions took responsibility for the loss.

"Republican donors and members cut NRCC chairman Pete Sessions a lot of slack after the losses in New York-23 and -20," National Journal's Amy Walter wrote just before the race. "Will they be as forgiving if he comes up short once again?"

Sessions learned the lessons of New York-23 perhaps too well. He was among the first to join the Tea Party Caucus, a group of representatives seeking to associate themselves with the controversial coalition of conservative critics of the president. This will excite the Republican base, but you have to wonder how it will play in the Democratic-leaning districts the GOP needs to collect the last few seats of its majority. Democrats won so many early contests because they've mastered a formula of localizing races and relentlessly talking about the economy. Sessions is sticking to the tried, if not so true, methods of his Republican forebears: stoking fear of terrorists and big-spending liberals. So far, this safe-bet strategy hasn't led to much payoff. In Pennsylvania, voters saw a Republican candidate on a partisan crusade and a Democrat talking about jobs, and that was all it took. "If we need a way to show voters that it's a choice, we can play the myriad gaffes and scandals from their own leader," a Democratic campaign aide tells me.

Sessions has given them plenty to play with. At briefings with reporters, he has a tendency to mispronounce the names of his candidates or confuse their districts, so he's now often accompanied by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a younger representative who, along with Republican whip Eric Cantor and outspoken fiscal hawk Paul Ryan, represents the savvy next generation of Republican leadership.

McCarthy in particular has been credited with the committee's success in finding credentialed candidates and preparing them to campaign. Indeed, one of Sessions' most-praised innovations as NRCC chair is the "Young Guns" program, designed to identify and support Republican challengers -- but he merely adapted the plan from Cantor, McCarthy, and Ryan, who started it independent of the committee during the previous election cycle. Davis praises Sessions for making the NRCC a "team committee."

"He's not always the best front guy, but what he's been able to do is involve a lot of other members in handling press," Davis says. "The strength of a leader is their ability to utilize members in areas where he's not quite as accomplished." Davis doesn't think Sessions' gaffes will be a major factor for voters, but if they affect committee fundraising, it will be a far more serious problem. The NRCC is catching up, but the House Democrats have nearly twice as much cash on hand. In an age where a major ad buy can swing a close district, money matters.

Democrats may have the better record so far this cycle, but most observers don't expect their good fortune to continue on election night. Winning special elections is a science the DCCC mastered under Emanuel, but the dynamics of national elections are different. As the Prospect went to press, political forecasters anticipated that Republicans will pick up 35 to 45 seats (the magic number for a majority is 39). That's a slim margin to defend.

If they do manage to ride the wave of dissatisfaction with the economy and the president, will Republicans be ready to make law? By this time in 2006, the year Democrats took back the House, they had already promulgated a "Six for '06" legislative agenda -- and when elected, they passed every item. Republicans are still debating whether it is even in their interest to embrace specific policies. If they did, what agenda would Sessions set? Would he further align his party with the crazed populism of the Tea Party, crying out for Obama's birth certificate and condemning nonexistent socialism? Or return to the Business Roundtable policies he loves to cite, calling for lower corporate taxes and opposing laws to protect equal pay for women? He's disinclined to say, and it's not his job, which suits Sessions just fine. With a Democrat in the White House for at least another two years, Republican policy owes more to Nancy Reagan than Ron: Just say no.

"Whatever you do, people are going to take shots at you," Davis says of Sessions' critics. "His report card will be election night, and right now it looks like it'll be a pretty good election night."

It might be Sessions' first easy A in a while.

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