A little more than a month after Barack Obama took the oath as president, and with Democrats dominating Congress, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas stood before the House Republican conference at a fundraising dinner in Washington.
Sessions said he would consider it a failure if he did not retire Nancy Pelosi and make John Boehner speaker of the House in 20 months.
"Anything less, I did not fulfill my mission statement," he stated bluntly.
You could almost hear the collective eye-rolling, wincing and winking in the room. Two years after their 2006 thumping, and after deeper losses in 2008, most Republicans dismissed his bold proclamation and doubted if he even had a plan.
"I remember looking over at John Boehner as I spoke," recalls Sessions. "He gave me this sort of sheepish, uneasy look. He had no idea I was going to say that, but I meant it."
The thing is, "he did have a plan," says Republican media consultant Brad Todd of On Message Inc. and part of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent-expenditure team.
Right after Sessions took over the NRCC in late 2008, Todd says, the 11-term congressman from the Dallas suburbs began dismantling it.
"We sort of started the organizational chart all over again," he recalls. "By the end of January 2009, the NRCC was torn down and rebuilt."
For years, the NRCC’s philosophy was incumbent protection and going after open seats in swing districts. In this cycle it went "guerrilla" — challenging incumbents it had no business challenging, then going after more traditional swing seats.
Sessions has experience running unconventionally. In his second try for Congress, he drove a trailer full of horse manure around his district. He lost by fewer than 2,500 votes.
As NRCC chairman, he also lost the first handful of highly publicized House special elections in 2009 and 2010.
He never let that bother him, he says, nor get in the way of his larger mission: retiring Pelosi.
After Democrats plucked 30 seats from Republicans and rose to the majority in the 2006 midterms, Rahm Emanuel, then an Illinois congressman and the Democrats’ campaign chairman, became a household name.
Emanuel’s post-election media coverage was about 900 stories. Sessions comes in at roughly 200, even though he doubled Emanuel’s electoral wave by more than 30 seats.
No doubt some of this can be explained by Sessions’ and Emanuel’s very different personas and styles, says Jeff Brauer, Keystone College professor. "Emanuel is quite media-savvy and even flamboyant with his well-known Chicago-style politics, while Sessions is much less polished, particularly in dealing with the media."
The 2006 and 2010 midterms were similar in that they were not clear mandates for the victors; they were more rejections of those in power.
"However, Emanuel and the 2006 Democrats wrongly took their success as a mandate, while Sessions and the 2010 Republicans are correctly being cautious about claiming a mandate and therefore not taking much of a victory lap," Brauer says.
Reapportionment and redistricting in 2011 will help Republicans for the next 10 years.
"While this can be overstated and, at times, even understated, there is no doubt these will help Republicans maintain many of the gains they made in this midterm election," Brauer says.
Eight states, primarily in the Republican-leaning South and Southwest, are projected to gain seats with the new census numbers. Ten states, mostly in the Democrat-leaning Rust Belt and Northeast, are slated to lose seats.
Of 18 states that must redraw districts dramatically, 13 will have Republican governors and 10 will have GOP-controlled state legislatures.
Republicans are expected to unilaterally control the redrawing of about 195 congressional districts, Democrats only about 45.
"These are amazing Republican advantages," Brauer says.
Sessions is far from cocky about the Republican wins. He talks mainly about the more than 170 cities and towns he visited across the country, the people he met along the way, and his borderline obsession with M&Ms (particularly almond and peanut). "They were a staple of my campaign diet," he admits.
He will consider it a failure if Republicans lose any seats they gained this year — or do not pick up new ones.
"It’s my job," he explains.
Tribune-Review Political Reporter