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Ensign Seeks Funding Edge

Operating against the backdrop of what will be the most expensive presidential campaign in history, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) wants to dramatically increase contributions from his fellow GOP Senators — and to match the fundraising record set in the previous cycle by his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

Ensign, who took over the committee in January, laid out his plans for recapturing the Senate during a closed-door meeting of Republican Senators on Tuesday.

The Nevada Republican has set a lofty benchmark to raise at least $119 million over the next two years, the amount Schumer collected as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006.

“We’ve got to keep pace with them,” said one knowledgeable Republican aide. “It’s all about out-Schumering Schumer.”

Ensign has set up a multitiered contribution standard for his colleagues, ranging from $3 million for the top Senate GOP leaders to a bottom rung of $750,000 for the rank and file.

Ranking members will be asked to shell out $1.25 million to $1.75 million over the cycle, depending on the committee.

In a brief interview Wednesday, Ensign acknowledged the aggressiveness of his plan, given the hurdles it faces in a competitive presidential fundraising cycle and against a powerful DSCC still led by Schumer.

Ensign must defend 21 GOP-held seats this cycle and must help the party retake at least two seats to win control of the Senate in the 111th Congress. He also must get his fundraising operation up and running earlier than ever.

“We have to think bigger, much, much bigger than ever before,” Ensign said. “Schumer set the bar much higher. We didn’t compete well enough last time.”

The NRSC raised $88 million in the previous cycle, $31 million less than the DSCC, and struggled to encourage Republican Senators to transfer money from their own campaign accounts to aid the committee.

Meanwhile, Schumer had great success getting millions from his fellow Democrats.

Ensign wouldn’t outline specifics of his new strategy Wednesday, but he acknowledged it “entails all Senators being involved. I have laid out the challenges. The question is, ‘Are we hungry?’

“We are going to find out whether our colleagues are hungry enough to put in the effort to get in the majority.”

Sources familiar with Ensign’s plans say the Nevada Republican has reviewed the Democrats’ 2006 strategy in detail, with plans to expand traditional GOP fundraising targets to places where the new majority has had its success. That includes tapping into new donor markets, regions of the country and individual states, they said.

Ensign also is putting in place new incentives for Senators to raise money for the NRSC and for their colleagues.

In particular, the Nevada Republican is working to expand the NRSC’s donor groups and promote the heavy use of joint fundraising by Senators. The latter seeks to encourage Senators — sometimes reluctant to simply transfer money directly to the NRSC — to hold events or raise money on behalf of themselves as well as another Senator, or for the committee.

“He is creating some new initiatives that will be helpful,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “It’s about getting people to participate more than ever before.”

So far, Ensign is getting good marks from his fellow GOP Senators, who said Wednesday that they are encouraged by his aggressive approach to taking on the Democrats and the energy with which he has taken on the often thankless post as NRSC chairman.

“We have to look at all ways to fill our coffers,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Republican Conference vice chairman. “Everybody is going to have to pull out all the stops, at all levels to match Chuck Schumer’s fundraising machine.”

“We have got to change our mindset and our attitudes about what our capabilities are,” said another Republican Senator. “We recognize that if we are ever going to get in the majority, we’ve got to do better.”

Republican Senators said they can no longer rely on the old standards for fundraising, and they cannot simply ask Members to operate independently of the committee.

And, they said, the pressure is on earlier than ever because once the 2008 presidential race takes hold, donors will be distracted and less inclined to contribute to Senate races.

“We will get drowned out in a matter of months if not a matter of days,” said the GOP aide. “We are all going after a limited amount of federal dollars.”

Republican Senators also said it is critical they make a strong fundraising mark early in the cycle, to show they can and will be competitive against the new Democratic majority.

The NRSC has even bumped up its major fundraising dinner, usually held in the summer, to March — in advance of the first-quarter Federal Election Commission filing period.

One other factor the NRSC is taking into account this cycle is that it cannot rely on the help of the RNC — largely devoted to electing a GOP president in 2008 — to bolster its bank account as Election Day nears, Republicans said. “We don’t have that luxury this time,” Thune said.

“It’s going to be a challenge to get funds raised, there’s no question about it,” Cornyn added.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said he believes his colleagues are going to heed Ensign’s call and are fully aware that it requires them to step up their efforts.

“The caucus is very united in that,” Isakson said. “We will do everything we can to equal, match and exceed what [the Democrats] do.”

Republican sources said that Senate GOP leaders also are hoping that November’s elections served as a wake-up call for the Conference. Losing the gavel and control of the agenda should serve as the best motivation to encourage Senators to raise and give historic amounts of money to the NRSC, they said.

“The November election sent an electrical shock through our Members that we need to do more and step up our efforts if we want to take the Senate back,” said a Republican Senate leadership aide.

It also doesn’t hurt, sources said, that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spent two cycles as chairman of the NRSC in 1998 and 2000, and understands the pressures and importance of the operation. Plus, they said, McConnell would very much like to retake control of the chamber as the Majority Leader.

As for Ensign, he said he is holding out hope that his colleagues share his fire to put his party back in charge: “The rhetoric has been good. We’ll see whether we have action.”

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