New Faces Eye Senate Campaign Jobs

Posted January 15, 2004 at 3:23pm

With the leadership teams on both sides of the aisle appearing relatively secure, the Senate is likely to see just two races for top posts in the next year: both campaign committee chairmen.

The chairmen of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sens. George Allen (Va.) and Jon Corzine (N.J.), respectively, are up for re-election in 2006 and by custom are forbidden from holding those posts while facing their own campaigns. That will present openings for positions that can be high-risk and high-reward. While the spots are viewed as potential launching pads into the higher levels of leadership, failure to outperform expectations in them can be a kick in the pants that seriously hinders future aspirations.

No one on either side of the aisle has so far been blatantly campaigning for the jobs — the DSCC chairman is selected by Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.), while the NRSC post is filled by an official ballot of the entire Conference — but both parties have had a few potential candidates emerge from the pack, to the point where aides and campaign strategists are openly talking about what they would bring to the table.

The more clearly defined race — and potentially intriguing for personal, regional and ideological reasons — is on the Republican side. A pair of Senate newcomers, Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.), have emerged as the most likely contenders for the NRSC chairmanship.

If the two freshmen do go for the position, it could make for a fascinating race. Coleman is a northern Midwesterner born and raised in Brooklyn who campaigned in Minnesota as a moderate — first against fiery liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone and then former Vice President Walter Mondale, another liberal icon, after Wellstone’s fatal plane crash.

Graham is a native South Carolinian who ran hard to the right, first in his effort to sew up the GOP nomination for the seat of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) without a primary and then in a campaign against a conservative Democrat.

And, despite their apparent surface differences, Coleman and Graham have struck up a quick friendship in their first year in the chamber together, something most evident during a nearly 40-hour marathon debate on judicial nominations last fall. When the debate was nearing its expected end of 30 hours, Coleman and Graham volunteered to lead the proceedings for an entire second night, displaying a disheveled comedic duo’s timing in press conferences during and after the debate.

Aides and outside strategists say it’s unclear if either Senator has an inside track to the position, and staff for both men declined to comment about their bosses’ ambitions.

Coleman’s staff gave a statement that said he was “flattered that people would suggest that I play this role in the future,” but declined to speculate on his future. “It’s obviously crucial that we keep our eyes on the main thing during this legislative session, and that is to serve the interests of Minnesota and the nation,” Coleman said.

On the Democratic side, aides and strategists point to four lawmakers as leading contenders to head their party’s campaign operation in the next election cycle: Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Jack Reed (R.I.). Of the four, the Democratic insiders said that Durbin and Reed top the list.

Durbin, who serves as the Assistant Floor Leader, is seen as a close Daschle confidant and hails from a state that is considered critical to the party’s fundraising efforts. It’s also no secret that Durbin aspires to continue climbing the Democratic leadership ladder. He turned down an opportunity to run for governor in 2002 for another term in the Senate and is seen as a possible successor to Daschle when the leader voluntarily steps down or if he fails to win re-election in November.

Chairing the committee could build up goodwill with current colleagues in their re-election battles and future colleagues elected during one’s DSCC tenure.

“For somebody like Senator Durbin, who is obviously anxious to move up the leadership ladder, becoming head of the DSCC is an excellent way to get the chits you are going to need to launch a leadership race in the Senate,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Reed has not displayed the same kind of leadership ambition but is seen as an equally loyal Democrat. He has a staff that is well-versed in campaigns and the Rhode Island Democrat is not married — a bonus because fundraising chairmen spend most of their weekends scouring the country in search of campaign dollars.

“His politics are clearly in line with the politics of the leadership,” said a Democratic campaign strategist, who demanded anonymity.

Equally important, both men were easily re-elected in 2002, taking pressure off them to immediately begin raising money for their own campaigns in 2008.

Boxer is less likely to ascend to the post, but her natural appeal to the party’s liberal base, coupled with the fact she is from California, make her an attractive candidate, some insiders said.

The long shot of the group appears to be Bayh, who decided to forgo a run for the White House in 2004 to focus on his re-election to the Senate.

Long considered to be one of the party’s rising stars, Bayh champions moderate political positions and serves as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. This could hurt him with liberal donors, but the Indiana Democrat is said to be seriously eyeing a run for the White House in 2008 should President Bush be re-elected. A tour of duty at the DSCC would help a potential White House aspirant establish a national fundraising base or, in Bayh’s case, introduce him to a whole new donor class he does not currently interact with, Democratic fundraisers said.

“It will be the premier political post for an elected official if the Democrats fall short of winning the White House,” noted a political operative for a powerful Washington-based liberal interest group.

One thing that has become a prerequisite for holding the GOP Senatorial committee position is a demonstrated ability to raise money, and not just for one’s own campaign.

Coleman emerged as more politically aggressive than Graham in the first few months of their Senatorial tenures. He opened a leadership political action committee, the NorthStar Leadership PAC, early last year. By the end of September, Coleman’s PAC had taken in $236,000 and had begun to dish out contributions to incumbents, including relatively safe candidates such as Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Jim Bunning (Ky.).

In addition to attending fundraising dinners for state party committees across the country, he’s become a “Ranger” for the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign team, raising at least $200,000 for Bush’s re-election effort.

As he put it in a brief interview with Roll Call in July, “Raising money, reaching out, I’m certainly very comfortable doing those things that keep us in the majority.”

But Graham is hardly shy on the fundraising circuit. His leadership PAC, the Fund for America’s Future, opened in September. By the end of December, his PAC had raised more than $52,000. And around the middle of last year Graham took the initiative in trying to secure more money for Republicans from one of the Democrats’ most reliable financial constituencies, trial lawyers.

Other aides, however, say the race could tip on the basis of party loyalty, and, somewhat surprisingly, the more moderate Coleman has emerged as the more reliable vote for leadership. Graham, despite his conservative leanings, has maverick tendencies, which were most demonstrable in Bush’s primary battle with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2000, when Graham backed McCain.

In his push for trial-lawyer cash for GOP candidates, Graham’s been in contact with McCain’s former top political operative, John Weaver, who has become a Democrat and has a legendary rivalry with Bush’s top political man, Karl Rove.

Perhaps aware what impact his maverick reputation could have on is career, Graham’s first donation from the Fund for America’s Future went to Bush-Cheney ’04 for $2,000 in November.