Experienced Hand Guides GOP House Races

Experienced Hand Guides GOP House Races
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Rep. Greg Walden has been intimately involved in building the largest Republican House majority in nearly a century.

The Republican from Oregon was a deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010 when the party flipped 63 seats and regained its majority. In 2012, he helped limit GOP losses in the House to just eight seats when the party gave up the White House and two Senate seats.

He started at the committee as a top deputy in 2008. Now, as NRCC chairman, he’s in charge of preserving GOP gains in a year Democrats are bullish on their chances of putting a serious dent in the Republican majority.

This is Walden’s second – and final – cycle as NRCC chairman. He first took on the role in 2014, when he oversaw a gain of 13 seats to create the largest GOP majority since the Great Depression – 247 seats to 188 for Democrats.

“Getting the biggest majority since 1928 means your focus is much more on retention, and there aren’t that many new opportunities to grow,” Walden told RealClearPolitics during a lengthy interview in his office across the street from the Capitol. “There are some, and we’ve got some really good ones, but it’s not like you’re 40 seats deep to grow the majority.”

The work began mere days after the 2014 elections finished. Walden and his staff told the members who had just been elected that winning their seat in a mid-term would be drastically different than getting re-elected during a presidential year, and the official and campaign work would need to start immediately.

“It was helping work with our members to say you need to accomplish things in the job you just got elected to, but you also have to understand that your next election will be your most important and most difficult in a harsher environment,” Walden said.

That was part of the reason he decided to lead the committee for a second cycle. The only Republican member of Oregon’s congressional delegation, Walden told RCP he had people suggest he should leave the chairmanship and ride off into the sunset. But he said the continuity mattered, and it was important for him to man the helm during the tougher cycle. His decision to stay helped keep some top staff around – including executive director Rob Simms, who was political director in 2014, and Liesl Hickey, the 2014 executive director who stayed on as a senior adviser, among others.

Simms, in an interview with RCP, said Walden’s experience in top roles at the committee is invaluable during a competitive cycle like 2016. Beyond that, Walden has worked as a congressional staffer and campaign manager, giving him a broad perspective on the different aspects of the process.

“That just comes through in how … he works here and how he approaches things with his colleagues and fundraisers and donors … because he knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the table,” Simms said. “It’s very, very unique, I think, for a lot of the party committees and extraordinarily helpful for us."

Walden’s introduction to congressional campaigns came when he worked as a deejay at an Alaska radio station his freshman year of college in 1974 and played campaign ads for Rep. Don Young. Young won his first full term that year and is currently serving his 22nd. Walden still remembers the ad: “It was some tympani drum. ‘Boom boom boom boom boom boom boom. Don Young for all of Alaska.’ Don’t ask me why I remember that. Oh, and I remind him. He’s so sick of me telling this story."

Though Walden and his staff were ready for the structural difficulties of Republicans running in presidential years – higher turnout that often favors Democrats and less oxygen for congressional races – the current environment, with Donald Trump atop the ticket, was unexpected. Democrats are predicting a major expansion in competitive seats, though they aren’t yet predicting they can flip the 30 seats necessary to win back the majority.

Walden, who has said he’ll back Trump, has given members great leeway to make their own decisions. Several, including Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Illinois Rep. Bob Dold, have said they can’t support the nominee, while others are full-throated in their support of Trump. Walden insists that those fractures in his conference haven’t made his job more difficult. He also brushed off questions about members not going to the convention, pointing out that although he backed Sen. John McCain in 2008, he listened to his convention speech from a radio in the bed of his pickup truck on a kayaking trip with his wife.

“They make that calculus -- they know,” he said. “We don’t tell them you need to do this or you need to do that. They may talk to us about it, but at the end of the day, these are very talented men and women who make that decision based on what they feel in their heart and their head about their district.”

Curbelo, whose south Florida district is one of the most competitive this cycle, said Walden stays “stoic and takes everything in stride.” He said he often plays the role of therapist, asking vulnerable members, “How are things going? How do you feel?” Curbelo added that Walden has the “perfect blend of optimism and realism” to be leading GOP members through the turbulent political environment: 51 percent optimist, 49 percent realist.

Walden insists Republicans are well positioned this year despite the narrative that Trump will cause their members problems. He told RCP the election is not “in a vacuum” and that presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who has high unfavorable numbers, will be a similar drag on Democrats down the ballot.

For example, in a Nevada district represented by Rep. Cresent Hardy, who Democrats are heavily targeting this year, a poll commissioned by the NRCC and obtained by RCP showed Hardy and his opponent, state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, with identical favorable/unfavorable numbers (24 percent favorable, 14 percent unfavorable, 62 percent with no opinion). But Hardy held a slight edge, and Trump had 50 percent favorability in the district, while Clinton had 60 percent unfavorability.

“The DCCC for all year has said it’s Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump. They build their whole campaign strategy around that and they now claim 80 seats are going to be in play in two weeks. I want to see the list, I want to see the polling data on any of those seats,” Walden said, calling it a “bluff routine … I think the voters want to see change. They don’t want to see the status quo, and Hillary Clinton clearly is – you can’t get more status quo than Hillary Clinton.”

First elected to the House in 1998, Walden has a good relationship with Speaker Paul Ryan. The two lawmakers and their political staffs work closely on a daily basis. This is most noticeable in the fundraising department, where both Ryan, a prolific party fundraiser, and Walden, who has long relationships with party donors, have helped put the NRCC in its best financial position ever, with more than $50 million cash on hand at the end of May.

"I could not ask for a better partner to defend and strengthen our House Republican majority than Chairman Greg Walden,” Ryan said in a statement. "He has built on the work of past chairmen and refined an already strong organization. This has been an uncertain election cycle, but despite that, Greg has put the NRCC in a great position to support our candidates this November."

Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, the chairman before Walden who worked closely with him on the committee, said it’s difficult to measure success at this point in the cycle. But right now, Sessions said, the key metrics – polling and fundraising – are positive.

“I think Republicans, if we do well with Mr. Trump, will crush Democrats across the country,” Sessions said in an interview. “Likewise, if Mr. Trump does not do well, we could get crushed. Does that mean we lose the majority? No, I don’t think we’ll lose the majority. But we could lose a number of seats. So I think it’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition."

Walden has worked furiously to make sure Sessions’ first prediction comes true – which leaves little free time in his schedule. Asked what he did during his down time, Walden deadpanned: “My what?” He and his wife like to ski but rarely hit the slopes this year. They often go camping and kayaking in the summer, but haven’t done so yet this year, and Walden was skeptical they’d find any time.    

He traveled 63 days and more than 70,000 miles for the committee in 2015 and is on pace to go well beyond that this year. Last weekend, he conducted two town halls and a roundtable with ranchers and farmers in his district before taking a red-eye back to Washington to meet with Speaker Ryan. This weekend he will do a town hall and walk a parade before driving five hours to get home to catch an early flight to Cleveland with his wife for the convention.

“Down time was where in there? Oh, I’ve got to mow the lawn,” Walden joked. “I’m not complaining. I asked for it, and the conference was very generous in giving me two shots at this."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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