Swept up in convention-week optimism, Republicans remain confident that the Senate battleground map favors their candidates in critical states and that President Bush’s coattails may extend far enough to boost their candidates in less-heralded contests.
“We are very proud to be running with President Bush and not running from him,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) at a press briefing Tuesday. “I would use our resources to pay for Senator [John] Kerry [Mass.] to put his arms around the Democratic [Senate] nominee in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Alaska.”
Republicans have long been confident that even in tossup contests, their Senate candidates have a tactical advantage because Bush is expected to run strong — from Alaska to South Dakota to a handful of open seats in the South.
But now they think that aggressive GOP get-out-the-vote drives in states that Bush lost in 2000 could also result in a windfall for their Senate and House candidates.
Republicans say they have redoubled their efforts since 2000 to identify and register new voters and get them to the polls, and they now boast that their ground game outshines the Democrats’.
That remains an open question, however, as several liberal outside organizations — led by America Coming Together — have embarked on a massive voter registration program in the 17 states being targeted by both presidential candidates.
Even so, Republicans believe their concentration on the ground game has created a foundation for victory in some unlikely states.
“There’s always one surprise Senate race every cycle,” said Maria Cino, deputy chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. “The question is figuring out what that surprise is.”
Recent polls and anecdotal evidence, for example, suggest that Bush is running better than expected in Wisconsin and Minnesota — states that last voted for Republican presidential candidates in 1984 and 1972, respectively. Cino suggested that kind of hidden strength could boost the Republican who emerges from the Sept. 14 GOP Senate primary in the Badger State, where Sen. Russ Feingold (D) is favored to win a third term.
State Sen. Bob Welch and millionaire businessmen Russ Darrow and Tim Michels are the main competitors for the Republican nomination.
“That’s my sleeper,” Cino said. “We’ll take the presidential, maybe even the Senate [seat]. That geographic area is moving more and more Republican.”
Republicans also believe Bush has a shot at winning in Washington state, which has voted Democratic in the past four presidential elections. And they believe there is some synergy between the presidential campaign and the Washington Senate race, where Rep. George Nethercutt (R) is challenging Sen. Patty Murray (D).
But even though recent national polls in the see-saw White House election indicate that Bush has picked up a few points in his battle with Kerry, Democrats scoff at the suggestion that Bush’s coattails are long enough to help many other Republicans — especially in Wisconsin, where the independent-minded Feingold may be impervious to partisan trends. Democrats also insist that Murray remains strong.
“I don’t believe there is any evidence in any public polling that Bush is going to provide coattails anywhere,” said Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He has got to worry about his own election, he is not going to be able to provide coattails.”
Woodhouse also pointed out that as Bush was winning the presidency in 2000, Democrats picked up four seats to bring the Senate into a 50-50 split.
Still, Republicans are even crowing about their voter outreach efforts in states that are considered out of reach for Bush, like California. Several Golden State and national GOP operatives said this week that the state party, bolstered by the popularity of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), is well on its way to registering 600,000 new Republicans by Election Day.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, a Californian, has just returned from her home state to raise money for House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R) and GOP Senate nominee Bill Jones and said she found the party more organized than it has been for a long time.
“I came away from that trip energized about the potential for California,” she said.
Allen predicted that the fall election in California would provide the state “an opportunity to really be turning around.”
“The people of California have an opportunity to have a person at the table,” added the NRSC chairman.
Recent public polls in California have shown Kerry and the woman Jones hopes to defeat, two-term Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), ahead by anywhere from 12 to 16 points.
Bob Mulholland, a consultant with the California Democratic Party, said GOP registration figures are being driven by “bounty hunters” who are being paid up to $7 for every new Republican they register. And he predicted that Bush would “drag down the entire Republican ticket” in the Golden State.
But Republicans insist that their internal polls show Bush and Jones each trailing by single digits. In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore spent no money in California but still carried the state by a double-digit margin over Bush, who spent millions of dollars on advertising in California.
Jones must make up a massive fundraising gap, however, if he hopes to be competitive. As of June 30, Boxer had $7.1 million in the bank to Jones’ $956,000.
Given the cost of running political ads in California, any momentum Jones is able to build could fall by the wayside unless his fundraising improves considerably.
On the House side, meanwhile, most party strategists say the races are too localized to expect coattails or turnout efforts to affect the outcomes.
“I don’t believe this [presidential] race is going to have any coattails,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.). “It certainly didn’t in 2000, because it’s the closest race in my lifetime and I assure you there were no coattails.”
Still, the White House has worked hand-in-hand with the NRCC to determine which Congressional candidates to highlight at the convention this week.
“Originally the list came from the White House,” said Bo Harmon, an NRCC spokesman.
The White House and Congressional Republicans tried to get a cross-section of everything — geography, race, gender, candidates considered shoo-ins and those running in harder races — in an effort to show the party’s diversity.
Lauren W. Whittington and Nicole Duran contributed to this report.