Amateur Hour

Congressional candidate Mike Murphy feels the strong arm of the GOP

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."

After hearing the tapes, the Observer called Forti back. He said he hadn't fibbed; the talks between Murphy and the party honchos had been incorrectly "characterized," which led to a "misunderstanding." "Look, that's the reality of the race," Forti said. "That's the bottom line. The NRCC needs to help as many Republicans as possible."

Maybe. But according to the NRCC, which says it often contacts challengers on behalf of vulnerable incumbents, no other calls of that kind were made to any challenger in Texas. Oddly, the NRCC failed to contact Mike Mosher, the other Republican candidate in District 4. Mosher could be seen as a bigger threat to Hall than Murphy because he's been running radio ads and plans to continue doing so until the March 9 primary, not to mention that he was recently endorsed by The Dallas Morning News. (Forti said that the NRCC was unaware of Mosher's candidacy until after the filing deadline.)

"I just want to run a strong race, you know, fight the fight, and if I lose, at least I tried," Murphy says. "Texas would be the Republic of Mexico if we'd just given up at the Alamo. I thought it was a little odd that they'd called me. And when they were going on about the White House and ruining my career, all I could think was, 'I don't have a career.'"

"You know, I've heard of a lot of ways to handle situations in politics, but that's one of the best--it's like a Saturday Night Live skit," says Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant for HillCo Partners. "On the NRCC's part, that's what you call ham-handed amateur hour. Do people have bad days? Yeah. Are people stupid? Absolutely. And I think this is more of latter than the former.

"The fact that people get threatened in politics is nothing new. But using Karl Rove's name and saying that he would be an enemy of the president for life if he didn't get out--that's a different situation because of the context. I mean, here's a kid, Murphy, who is an amateur, but he acts like a pro. And the party, they're pros, but they act like amateurs. It speaks to how capable, or incapable, they are. We should all tip our hat to him because he caught them on tape and let them talk themselves into a disaster."

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