Who will be the Republicans’ Rahm Emanuel in 2010?

Jon Ward Contributor
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Who will be the Republican Rahm Emanuel in 2010?

In 2006, Emanuel was acclaimed as the architect of Democrats’ sweep to power in the House and Senate. It helped launch him toward a job as President Obama’s chief of staff, which he has since vacated for a run at mayor of Chicago.

Now, Republicans look poised to take back the House, and possibly the Senate. GOP politicians and operatives demur when asked who will get credit for a big win on Nov. 2. But that doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about whose political star might be launched after a successful election.

The top names mentioned by the more than two dozen political insiders – most of them Republicans – were Karl Rove, Haley Barbour and Ed Gillespie, overshadowing the heads of the campaign committees, Texas Rep. Pete Sessions and Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Sessions and Cornyn were nonetheless generally described as having redeemed themselves after shaky starts to the cycle.

“My hunch is it’s going to be more the Eds, the Karls, the Haleys than the people at the party committees themselves, in part because the people at the committees are not generally known in the public,” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush.

The one official that Republicans criticized without prompting, and of their own accord, was Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

Here is a rundown of the candidates for the Republican Rahm:

Karl Rove: Rove, the original “architect,” was already playing a major role in this cycle for much of the last year, after working with Gillespie to help launch two independent groups, American Crossroads and the American Action Network, at the beginning of 2010. When President Obama made Rove the target of his attacks on outside groups with anonymous donors, that put Rove’s name in bright lights.

The opinion among conservatives about Rove, however, is more nuanced than simple gratitude for boatloads of cash in a crucial election, though there is that. “There’s no question on a fundraising basis that the outside groups stepped in and filled a very large hole left by the implosion at the RNC, and thank God they did,” said Bill Paxon, a former Republican chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Whether we win the majorities or not we will win a lot of the elections because of the money from the outside.”

But most conservative insiders do believe that Rove is just one of several Republicans who have played a crucial role this election cycle. Rove’s status as chief bogey man to the left ensures that he is most likely to take back the architect honorific from Rahm. But Rove is unlikely to run for office any time soon, so the electoral impact of the spotlight on him is fairly small.

Haley Barbour
: This says it all: under Barbour’s leadership, the Republican Governors Association raised $31 million in the third quarter of 2010, tripling the haul of the Democratic Governors Association. But the Mississippi governor’s savvy and willingness to play for keeps was much in evidence going back to a year ago, when he authorized TV ads against a third-party gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey, helping to clear the way for Republican Chris Christie. Barbour’s meritocratic approach has also allowed a first-rate multimedia shop to spring up at the RGA, where an in-house staff has harnessed the energy and creativity of young filmmaker Lucas Baiano.

Barbour has been saying for months that he thinks 2010 will be an even better year than 1994, when he was RNC chairman and was widely credited with playing a major part in ushering in the Republican revolution. A run for the presidency has been widely rumored as in the making, but the most recent gossip is that GOP power players will ask Barbour to run for RNC chairman again to replace Michael Steele. Barbour himself has knocked Steele’s management of the RNC, but those close to him have knocked down the rumor that he would return to the RNC.

Ed Gillespie: Gillespie’s name is associated with Crossroads and AAN almost as much as Rove’s, and he has been a key force in convincing a Republican establishment who fought against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance structure – fearing it would move money away from party committees and toward less accountable outside groups – to work within it.

But Gillespie’s biggest contribution to the 2010 cycle may have been his focus on state legislatures. In January, Gillespie took the helm of the Republican State Leadership Committee, focusing his energy on the impact of state legislature races on congressional redistricting long before most others had even thought about it. Republicans are now poised to make major gains in governors’ races and in numerous legislatures. Estimates vary as to how much this will impact the redrawing of congressional districts, but there is no debate that the effect will be significant.

Gillespie may in fact be the dark horse among future politicos in the 2010 cycle. He is not yet widely talked about as a future candidate for public office, but a survey of GOP insiders revealed hopes that he may run for senator or governor in Virginia down the road, perhaps as soon as 2012, when Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, is up for reelection.

Michael Steele: One former staffer at the Republican National Committee predicted that the RNC chairman will be in front of TV cameras on the morning of Nov. 3, claiming a major role in any victory. Steele is likely smarter than that. Yet in soliciting opinions from a wide variety of Republican operatives within the party structure and outside it, Steele’s was the only name consistently mentioned as someone who should not get credit for any gains the GOP makes on Nov. 2. Several sources went out of their way to say so.

But the RNC says they have done more to increase turnout than ever before, citing 357 “victory centers” around the country with at least one paid staffer, 25 million voter contacts by volunteers either through phone calls or door-knocking (6 million more than 2008), and more money raised than in 1994 when indexed for inflation. Of course, a primary complaint about Steele’s tenure at the RNC has been how much he’s spent of that money he’s raised. One RNC insider said the organization will end up with $20 million in debt. And Steele’s loyalists inside the RNC have engaged in an open debate with the organization’s treasurer, Randy Pullen, over how much debt the organization has on its books. Nonetheless, for all this, Steele can’t be counted out, partly because he has deftly aligned himself with Sarah Palin.

Pete Sessions: The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee was criticized a year ago for not raising more money. But the fundraising environment for the GOP then looks like an ice age compared to now. The Texas Republican also sided against Tea Party candidate Doug Hoffman in last October’s special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district.

Yet since then, supporters of Sessions say, he has been quick to get out of the way of the conservative grassroots, and has focused on recruiting good candidates without dictating to the Tea Party. “He works hard and understands the campaigns down to the most basic level. We’re not putting amateurs out on the road trying to muck around in campaigns,” said Terry Holt, a Republican lobbyist who has long been involved with helping the NRCC raise money and recruit candidates. Holt said the NRCC “stands out from other campaign committees,” though he added that this was not a knock at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Sessions’ staffers feel he hasn’t gotten enough credit for his fundraising and his candidate recruitment, but the fact is, if Republicans win back the majority, Sessions will get plenty of credit. If they get over 50 seats, he could become a star.

Kevin McCarthy
: The two-term congressman from California – with charisma and TV charm to spare – has risen quickly up the leadership in the GOP, and was tasked by Sessions with overseeing candidate recruitment for the NRCC. His name was cited more often than Sessions’ by GOP insiders, a sign of his ability to gain exposure. But Republicans also gave him credit for strong leadership, organizational and analytic abilities. McCarthy, who is one of the three “Young Guns,” along with House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, would be the rational next in line to head up the NRCC heading into the 2012 elections.

John Cornyn
: His legacy may be the most in dispute after Nov. 2. The battle is already on to define it. Supporters of the Texas senator and chairman of the NRSC, like former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, have actually said that a successful election cycle would elevate Cornyn into the roster of potential presidential contenders in 2012.

But in the House, Republican conservatives who are most closely aligned with the Tea Party on the issues complain that Cornyn and the NRSC continued trying to impose their will on races by trying to pick candidates in Kentucky, Nevada, Utah and Delaware. Vin Weber, a former congressman and Republican lobbyist, counters that contention, saying “the Tea Party phenomenon couldn’t have been anticipated but the NRSC has done a great job of getting behind them when they win primaries. [The] only exception is Delaware where we have little chance.”

Jim DeMint: The South Carolina Republican has replaced Sen. John McCain as the maverick of the Senate. He bucked his party leadership in numerous primary races earlier this year, and took hard line conservative stands going back to the Bush presidency.

“DeMint is not afraid to dig in and fight the Obama Administration on all fronts and his own party when Republicans run away from conservative positions,” said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation. “DeMint fought his party on TARP, the bailout of Wall Street, and that provides him with street cred with the Tea Party movement.”

In addition, DeMint has created his own formidable fundraising operation through his Senate Conservatives Fund. He will have enhanced stature when the Senate returns with its new class of lawmakers.

Sarah Palin: The former Alaska governor did not play an organizing role within the GOP, but conservatives say her unabashed stands against Obama and his agenda have gone a long way toward energizing their base. The success or failure of key candidates Palin endorsed and lent her name to, such as South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Hailey, will dictate how Palin’s political fortunes are affected.

President Obama: Several Republicans cited the president as their Rahm Emanuel figure in 2010, because so many of the president’s policies, such as health care and financial regulation, have energized the grassroots into opposition. “President Obama has been the most efficient organizer of conservatives since Ronald Reagan,” Darling said. “Conservatives will win this fall because of the President, so he deserves credit.”

Honorable Mention

Nick Ayers: Only 28 years old, Ayers is already in his fourth year as executive director of the Republican Governors Association. While Barbour has brought the heft, it’s been Ayers’ gusto and smarts that have transformed the RGA into a powerhouse. Plus, he’s “very close to Haley who will clearly be a player into 2012,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist.

Carl Forti: He is the 38-year old executive director of American Crossroads, the man executing the vision laid out by Rove and Gillespie for the new independent expenditure power player. Rove recently called him “one of the smartest people in politics you’ve never heard of.”

Greg Walden: NRCC aides could not say enough about the Oregon congressman’s performance in raising money from big money donors for the House Republicans’ campaign efforts. He has been in Congress for almost 12 years and is little known, but that could change after this fall.

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