Pete Sessions, the un-rock star, gets the job done

Salena Zito
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Posted: Nov 21, 2010 12:01 AM

A little over 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 the Speaker of the House in 20 months.

"Anything less, I did not fulfill my mission statement," Sessions stated bluntly.

You could almost hear the sound of collective eye-rolling, wincing and winking in the room. Two years after their thumping in 2006, followed by 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 where it had no business challenging, then going after more traditional swing seats.

Sessions has experience running unconventionally. In his second attempt to win a seat in Congress, he drove around his district with a trailer full of horse manure. He lost that election by less than 2,500 votes.

As the NRCC’s chairman, he also lost the first handful of highly publicized special-election House races in 2009 and 2010.

He never let that bother him, he says, nor get in the way of his larger mission: Retiring Pelosi.

After the midterm elections of 2006 when Democrats plucked 30 seats from Republicans and rose to the majority, 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? Not so much; he 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, Keystone College professor Jeff Brauer says. “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 midterm elections of 2006 and 2010 were similar in that they were not clear mandates for the victors; they were more of a rejection 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.

The reapportionment and redistricting that will occur in 2011 will definitely 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 are projected to gain seats with the new census numbers, primarily in the Republican-leaning South and Southwest. Ten states, mostly in the Democrat-leaning Rust Belt and Northeast, are slated to lose seats.

Of those 18 states that definitely must redraw districts dramatically, 13 will have Republican governors and 10 will have GOP-controlled state legislatures.

Republicans are expected to unilaterally control the drawing of lines for about 195 congressional districts, while Democrats will unilaterally control only about 45 districts.

“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&M’s (particularly almond and peanut). “They were a staple of my campaign diet,” he admits.

And he says he will consider it a failure if Republicans lose any of the seats they gained this year – or if they do not pick up new ones.

“It’s my job,” he explains.