Who Built the GOP Comeback?

Republicans stand to make huge gains Tuesday—so the fight over who deserves credit is under way. Howard Kurtz on who’s responsible—Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, or Michael Steele?

10.26.10 10:38 PM ET

Republicans stand to make huge gains Tuesday—so the fight over who deserves credit is under way. Howard Kurtz on who’s responsible—Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, or Michael Steele? Plus, the latest midterm predictions from the Election Oracle.

Let’s crawl out on a very short limb and say the Republicans have a huge day next Tuesday, capturing the House and picking up a batch of Senate seats. Who gets the credit?  

Victory may have a thousand fathers, but we all have short attention spans, so only one or two are going to be hailed as kingmakers once the dust settles. It is our solemn duty to separate the preeners from the powerhouses.  

In an ordinary election, you’d credit the party leadership, but some of the establishment favorites lost, and the GOP brand is not exactly unblemished these days. So who has been the greatest help to the party?   

Veteran Republican strategist Alex Castellanos nominates Barack Obama.   

“He’s done what Ronald Reagan did for the Republican Party,” Castellanos says. “Reagan took a party that was in disrepute and rehabilitated it; so has Obama. Reagan reminded the Republican Party of its principles; so has Obama. He’s Reagan in reverse. He’s done a great job.”   

Clever bit of rhetoric. But let’s zero in on the conservative side.  

Bill Bennett, the Reagan drug czar turned radio talk show host, doesn’t miss a beat before hailing the Tea Party.   

“They’re the four-barrel carburetor,” he says. “They really just gave a surge of energy to these candidates. It’s not that there’s tremendous enthusiasm for the Republican Party; there’s not.”   

Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesman, also cites Obama’s role in galvanizing the opposition. But he says a turning point came at the town hall meetings in the summer of 2009, when ordinary folks confronted Democratic lawmakers over Obamacare and big government.

“That was a wakeup call for a depressed  Republican base that maybe we can win,” Fleischer says. “The Tea Party went first in saying that Obama policies are hurting us. The Tea Party was the spark. They are the adrenaline in the Republican system.” Some of those town-hall protesters were screaming about the Constitution, and such matters as nonexistent death panels, but that also made them a staple on cable news.     

Tea Partiers are “the four-barrel carburetor,” Bill Bennett says. “They really just gave a surge of energy to these candidates. It’s not that there’s tremendous enthusiasm for the Republican Party; there’s not.”

OK, the Tea Party isn’t an actual party, in the sense that it has no structure and no platform.  But if the Tea types provided the punch, that means Dick Armey, the onetime House majority leader who has backed the movement through his group Freedom Works, is among the winners.   

Before we swallow this strong brew, hyperactive Democrat James Carville cautions that the Tea Party’s bragging rights depend on how many of its candidates are victorious next week.   

“If they have a big night—if Ken Buck, Sharron Angle and Rand Paul win—they’re going to say we took a lethargic party and reenergized it and we’re owed the nomination” in 2012. But, says Carville, if Tea Party favorites lose “and the mainstream Republicans win, those guys are gonna say, ‘See, you took it too far.’”   

Leslie Sanchez, a Republican consultant and talking head, puts the spotlight on Sarah Palin. The woman from Wasilla, she says, “was drawing attention to many of these candidates, giving them light, energy and in many cases resources. They could raise money with that endorsement.”   

Not every Palin-powered primary candidate won, and her backing may be a mixed blessing in a general election. But she clearly boosted the likes of fellow Alaskan Joe Miller into contention.   

Sanchez also tips her hat to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. The Republicans are likely to capture a majority of the statehouses, an effort that Barbour has spearheaded in his role as head of the Republican Governors Association—and could parlay into his own White House bid. “He knows how to win,” Sanchez says. “He’s truly the unsung hero.”   

Which brings us to other party leaders. The chairman of the Republican National Committee would normally get to take a few bows when his party wins big. But Michael Steele seems to have made news mainly when he was messing up, trying to explain why he had called Afghanistan “a war of Obama’s choosing,” or described abortion as an “individual choice,” or wrote a book without telling his colleagues.   

“He was fundamentally irrelevant,” says Castellanos, who once called for Steele’s resignation. “A distraction. Didn’t help or hurt.”   

Steele has been a punchline, no question, especially since an operative dropped $2,000 at a lesbian-themed nightclub. But Steele’s spokesman, Doug Heye, says the RNC raised $175 million in this cycle—more than the DNC did in 2006—and pumped that cash into the party apparatus. On Sept. 15, he says, Steele got on a big red bus—emblazoned with the sign “Need a Job? Fire Pelosi”—for a tour that has taken him to 40 states.   

As for the gaffes, Heye dismisses them as so much Beltway chatter: “I don’t think anybody voting in a congressional district pays attention to the inside baseball of a party committee.”   

House Minority Leader John Boehner has also been a workhorse, raising more than $44 million for GOP candidates and committees. He may not care about the chattering class; his reward would be the speaker’s gavel.   

When the Democrats seized the House (along with the Senate) four years ago, much of the credit went to the foul-mouthed fundraiser and recruitment czar who spearheaded the effort, Rahm Emanuel. (Nor was Rahmbo shy about claiming it.) Who is his GOP counterpart in 2010? I had to look it up.   

Pete Sessions is a Texas congressman who gives new meaning to the phrase low profile. You don’t see him sounding off on the talk show circuit. But his folks praise his behind-the-scenes role at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where when operatives first tried to entice Republicans to run in the aftermath of Obama’s victory, as one put it, “people laughed at you.”   

“When Chairman Sessions came in, he made a big effort not only to focus on recruiting but to expand the playing field,” says NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay. “He has built a very strong organization and put us in a position today where we’re competitive against Democrats.” The committee has raised nearly $50 million—less than the Dems, but enough to finance ads in 62 House districts.  Still, virtually no one will give Sessions credit because he remains an obscure figure.   

Not so Karl Rove, who has not only emerged as the premier pundit from the Bush White House, but has also raised a truckload of money for the party. His American Crossroads group, one of a slew of newly minted conservative organizations, has come up with more than $50 million under looser campaign finance rules that allow donors to remain anonymous.  Rove has only rarely deviated from the GOP line—as when he accused Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell of saying “ nutty things”—and has put aside his criticism of third-party groups in 2004, when liberal groups were raising the big bucks.  

No list would be complete without Rupert Murdoch. His Fox News Channel provides a lucrative base for Rove, Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, along with such GOP cheerleaders as Sean Hannity, who also raises money for the party.  Murdoch’s News Corp., freed from the need to appear fair and balanced, has donated $1 million apiece to the Republican governors group and the Chamber of Commerce (which deserves its own slice of victory pie for leading the corporate assault against the Democrats with a $75 million war chest). A strong case can be made for Murdoch as MVP.   

And what about the talk show hosts? When the Republicans seized the House in 1994, the Gingrich gang made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the 104th Congress. Limbaugh (who famously called for Obama to fail in a speech a month after the inauguration) and Glenn Beck ( who called the president a racist and drew a huge crowd to the Lincoln Memorial) have been the loudest boosters of the conservative insurgency. Should they get a giant chunk of credit?   

“Whether they deserve it or not,” Carville says, “they’re gonna take it.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources, Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.