With less than seven months until Election Day, the race to see who will head up the Senate Republican campaign team for the 2006 cycle has been winnowed down to a few freshmen.
Without making a public declaration of their interest, Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) have begun taking the steps to run for the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, stepping up their fundraising work and, at least in Coleman’s case, openly talking to colleagues about the post. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.
The race for NRSC, likely to be the only contest after the 2004 elections among Senate Republicans for a leadership spot, shapes up in some ways as a regional, generational and stylistic battle, according to a number of Senators and aides. Also, the victor for the NRSC will set himself or herself up to potentially vault into the upper echelons of the Senate GOP after the 2006 elections, when retirements and term limits on leaders could result in as many four different races for leadership positions.
The wild card in the race for taking the helm at the NRSC may well be Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who, like every other GOP Senator, has just one vote in the matter but whose clout could nevertheless be measured in the race given his close political allegiance to Alexander. Any national aspirations Frist has are likely to be made or broken by how much of a majority Republicans have in the Senate at the end of 2006, when Frist is expected to retire and consider running for president.
Coleman, 53, and Alexander, 64, remain officially mum about their intentions, although Coleman openly acknowledged he is talking to fellow Senators about the NRSC and whether he would be the right fit for the job.
“I have had some conversations with folks,” he said in an interview before leaving for the April recess. “I’ve talked to a number of colleagues about this but I’m still listening.”
As for when he would officially jump into the race, Coleman said, “It’s still a little bit early.”
Alexander, who is heading up the NRSC’s effort for the July 21 President’s Dinner, the biggest Congressional fundraising event of the year, said his efforts were limited to helping the current NRSC chairman, Sen. George Allen (Va.), and that a decision on the 2006 cycle was still a ways off.
“I’m trying to be part of the team and do my part, but I haven’t looked that far down the road,” said Alexander, who chaired the $8.5 million Senate Majority Dinner for the NRSC in September.
Senators and aides said there appears to be no veteran lawmaker with interest in the job, though Dole, another freshman, could jump into the race. Dole, who spent her first year in office focusing almost entirely on local issues before stepping up her political work this year, said she would do whatever is asked of her.
“The best way I could put it is if the leadership was interested in my doing something, I would certainly be happy to sit down and talk about it,” Dole said in an interview early last month.
Up for re-election in 2006, Allen is forbidden by custom from running the campaign committee next election cycle.
A few other GOP freshmen considered making a bid for the chairmanship or had their names floated for the position, but all appear to have backed off.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who at one point last year was considered Coleman’s biggest rival for the NRSC, has begun telling people on Capitol Hill that he is no longer interested in the position, saying he wants to focus on the legislative side of his job.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), once considered a possible candidate, said he has not actually thought about taking a run at the position.
“I can’t imagine I will be,” he said, noting his work as head of one of the NRSC donor programs was enough of an effort. “I got enough pressure.”
Republican aides, strategists and fundraisers said Alexander and Coleman have taken bold steps behind the scenes to raise their political profile, with Coleman so far being more openly aggressive in his pursuit of the position and Alexander’s increasing consideration of the race coming only in the past few weeks.
One veteran GOP Senator, speaking anonymously, said one of Coleman’s supporters from the lobbying community was encouraging the Senator earlier this month to get behind Coleman’s bid for the NRSC.
Coleman’s leadership political action committee, NorthStar PAC, has raised the most money of any of the PACs opened by freshman Republicans since 2003 — almost $350,000 — and has dished out $75,000 to candidates and party committees. In addition, Coleman has hosted at least seven events in the Twin Cities area for Senate candidates, including two for nonincumbents, Reps. Richard Burr (N.C.) and George Nethercutt (Wash.).
Strategists say Coleman is also likely to make a regional argument in his favor for the ’06 cycle, when 17 Democratic seats and 15 Republican seats will be up for grabs. The battle terrain in 2006 is likely to go across the top tier of the nation, from the Northeast through the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, with key races likely in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Washington.
Alexander has not been as active with his leadership PAC, Tenn PAC, having raised just $42,000 and given out $17,000 so far.
But Alexander’s surrogates say his bid for the NRSC chairmanship will be waged mostly through his efforts at chairing the big fund-raising dinners for the committee, noting that Allen’s current chairmanship was sealed mostly on the back of his successful run at chairing the president’s dinners in 2001 and 2002.
Alexander has gotten along well with his colleagues in these dinner roles, GOP fundraisers say, noting that he can boast of having gotten all 51 Senate Republicans to participate in some measure on last fall’s gala dinner.
If Dole does jump into the race, she can point to her flurry of recent political activity. Her PAC, the Leadership Circle, raised $200,000 from January through March, the first quarter it was in business — more than any other freshman GOP Senator in that period. Her first major political event in Washington for donors will be April 29 and April 30, with Frist and Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie as honored guests.
Frist has not indicated who he would favor in a race for the NRSC, the position he used in the 2002 cycle to jump into the leader’s post, and most observers expect him to remain officially neutral.
But all eyes will be on any perceived help Frist gives to Alexander, the former Volunteer State governor who got into the 2002 Senate race at Frist’s urging. The two are considered home-state political allies from the lineage of former Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), and Frist sought Alexander’s advice when he first got into politics in the 1994 Senate race.
Moreover, their political operations are somewhat intertwined. Frist’s top fundraiser is Linus Catignani, who worked as the NRSC’s top money man in the 2002 cycle. Before he ever worked for Frist, however, Catignani was part of Alexander’s political team, raising money for his 1996 presidential campaign.
One of Frist’s other top fundraisers is Ted Welch, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman. Welch is also one of Alexander’s top money men and was the second person to give money to the Senator’s Tenn PAC — $5,000 last September.