By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
About a year ago, Mike Murphy and his pal J.J. Miller were at his pad in Frisco shooting pool over a few cold beers and lamenting the state of politics. Murphy, who is now 30, and Miller, 33, couldn't find a candidate whose ideas and values meshed with theirs, and the two young Republicans thought their party needed better guidance.
"That's when I said he should run for Congress," Miller recalls. "I told him he'd be perfect."
The idea grew on Murphy, despite a few obstacles to his candidacy. For instance, the finance manager and Texas native had no political experience.
And no money.
And, when you get right down to it, not much of a chance, really.
But political hope springs eternal--witness Ralph Nader, Al Sharpton, et al. --so with help from other politically interested friends and volunteers, in January Murphy filed as a GOP candidate for the U.S. House in District 4, which includes parts of Dallas and Collin counties, among others. He went to a candidates' school, where he learned basic campaign strategy on a tight budget. He went door-to-door and talked to people about issues. He hasn't run any television or radio ads; his is a grassroots campaign.
So it seemed a bit strange when Murphy received a phone call on January 13 from New York Congressman Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Reynolds advised the novice to get out of the race.
The suggestion itself was not too unusual, though hearing it from someone as high in the party as Reynolds seemed odd. Incumbent Ralph Hall had represented the district as a Democrat for more than 20 years until January, when he switched parties and joined the GOP. "I think I can get re-elected much easier if I run as a Republican," Hall told The Associated Press at the time. The GOP, naturally concerned that their newest member could be attacked in a primary for his defection and his comments to the AP, wanted to make the race easier for Hall. According to Murphy, before getting the call from Reynolds, he was twice contacted by the Republican Party of Texas, which also advised him to drop out. He didn't, which is when the NRCC took over the "get-Murphy-out" push.
According to Murphy, Reynolds urged him to leave the race because the party was throwing its full weight behind Hall. What sense did it make to run against "an 80-year-old man who is a longtime friend of the president?" Murphy said that Reynolds dropped plenty of big names, including Karl Rove, chief political strategist for the president. Reynolds promised that, should Murphy put his party first, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay would be made aware and that he "wouldn't forget it."
Murphy still didn't drop out.
A few days later, Murphy received another phone call, this time from Larry Telford, whom the NRCC calls its "incumbent retention director." Murphy said Telford told him that running would make Murphy an enemy of the White House and ruin his political career.
"The party is always very hardball," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of Quorum Report, a respected nonpartisan political Web site and subscription newsletter based in Austin. "They really only have two switches, on and off. They don't think it's overkill. That's not the way they view things from the Potomac when they start drinking that water. They think everyone has desires to move up the food chain, and since they don't know this fellow, they probably figured they'd better come out guns blazing. Intimidation works in so many other parts of their world that they're probably mystified that it didn't work this time."
Carl Forti, the NRCC's communication director, denied that the party tried to squash District 4's grassroots challenger with bluster. Forti confirmed that Reynolds and Telford had been in contact with Murphy, but said that Karl Rove's name had not been dropped in either conversation. He also denied that either caller had in any way suggested that running might ruin Murphy's political career and make him an enemy of the White House.
Unfortunately for Forti, Murphy owns a tape recorder. He taped his conversations with Telford and Reynolds, and he shared them with the Dallas Observer.
On the tapes, Reynolds can be heard clearly: "Normally with a party switcher, I'd deal with it myself or take it to the speaker, but I took this one directly to Karl Rove because of the unique relationship the White House has with Ralph. That's what started this whole thing." Reynolds also acknowledged that the Republicans don't want "party switchers" in the South getting beat up too badly, because they'd like more to follow Hall's example.
Telford was recorded saying that the relationship between Hall and the president "goes back a long way--they've helped each other for forever and a day, and the White House won't rest until he wins." Then, later: "Just consider what you're doing now. You don't want to have the freakin' president of the United States mad at you for the rest of your life." And, finally: "It will help you immensely to not do something that won't take you anywhere in a practical manner and that will really screw up your chances down the road...If you step off this cliff, gravity never goes up, it goes down."