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Ensign Promotes GOP Harmony

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) is working behind the scenes to avoid divisive primaries and identify consensus candidates as early as possible in key races this cycle, saying the 2008 stakes are too high to allow party infighting to derail opportunities to pick up seats.

In an interview last week, Ensign made several not-so-veiled references to the heavy-handed approach previous NRSC administrations have taken in trying to boost a preferred nominee — a practice that he said has often worked against the party’s interests.

Ensign did not rule out committee involvement in primaries this cycle but said he favors operating under the radar early on in an effort to try to avert them altogether — especially in cases where the GOP is targeting Democratic incumbents.

“I think that’s a better approach than … the Senate committee saying ‘here’s the anointed candidate and, hey, everybody else get behind them’ because that’s what I’ve sometimes [seen] as developing the infighting that ends up splitting [the party], and you really just cannot afford that,” Ensign said.

He added: “Washington can hurt, so you have to be very careful.”

Specifically, Ensign is working on the local level to produce a consensus GOP candidate in Colorado and Louisiana — states that have late primaries and are expected to host two of the hardest-fought contests this cycle.

In Colorado especially, Ensign sounded hopeful that the moderate and conservative wings of the party would be able to unify behind a candidate in the open-seat contest to succeed retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (R).

“I think they realize in Colorado what the split has done to them,” he said. “It’s like in some other states that have basically had two parties — one end of the Republican Party and the other end of the Republican Party — and them fighting ends up, in a Republican state, getting the Democrats the victory.”

Former Rep. Scott McInnis is the only Republican who has formally filed to run, although a couple of other potential GOP candidates are toying with running. Democrats have united behind Rep. Mark Udall.

Ensign insisted that Colorado remains a Republican state, despite the GOP losing two top statewide contests there in the past three years.

Ensign said the NRSC has no hard and fast rules on primary involvement this cycle.

“If it’s advantageous for us to get the absolute best candidate, then we’ll get involved,” he said. “But, you know, if there’s not a clear person in our opinion who would be the best candidate, then we’ll stay out of it.”

Lopsided Playing Field

With Democrats defending just 12 seats this cycle, compared with the 21 GOP-held seats that are up, Ensign was short on promises and sounded realistic about the challenges he faces as the chief architect of Senate Republicans’ effort to retake the majority in 2008. Democrats now hold a 51-49 seat majority after last year’s midterm elections.

The most endangered Republicans this cycle are Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Norm Coleman (Minn.), John Sununu (N.H.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.) — all of whom Ensign predicted Democrats will have difficulty painting as out-of-step with their swing states.

“Those four people match their states exceptionally well and they’re all doing the things necessary to get re-elected,” he said. “I could not ask for better people running in those states. All of their numbers look pretty good.”

Last cycle, Republicans began the cycle with top targets such as Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.), now ex-Senators who seemed to do more harm than good to their own re-election prospects.

Northeastern Republicans like Collins and Sununu would appear to be in the most peril after Democrats won big victories in the region last fall, including knocking off Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).

Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) is contemplating the race against Collins.

“They’ll try to paint her as some right-wing Republican,” Ensign said of Collins, one of the chamber’s most liberal Republicans. “It’s pretty hard to paint Susan Collins in that way.”

Elsewhere, Democrats have several candidates lining up to take on Coleman and Sununu but have come up short so far in finding a challenger to Smith.

Meanwhile, the GOP’s top targets are Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Tim Johnson (S.D.) and Max Baucus (Mont.). Ensign said:

• Both parties know that Landrieu’s re-election next year will be further complicated by the state’s changed demographics in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “She has not exactly won in landslides in the past anyways, and for her to lose as many … net voters, she’s lost a lot of them, makes her extremely vulnerable down there,” Ensign said. Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) is considering a run, and Ensign said that he has talked to all of the delegation as well as key financial people in the state in an effort to find a consensus candidate.

• Johnson is still recovering from a brain hemorrhage he suffered in December, but Ensign said that the conservative state remains a top target for the GOP. “It’s delicate right now. So you have to be very sensitive to the personal needs of that family,” he said. Gov. Mike Rounds (R) is the top choice among party leaders, but three or four other candidates are eyeing the race if Rounds opts not to run.

• Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) remains the GOP’s top prospect to take on Baucus. “Everybody agrees he’s an A-plus candidate,” Ensign said.

Surprises Await

Ensign acknowledged that there likely would be some surprise contests on both sides of the aisle — where incumbents who are not currently viewed as vulnerable will face a tougher-than-expected challenge.

“We have warned them that it is a cheap cycle, so that there are going to be places that the Democrats can play that they normally would not be able to play,” Ensign said.

Last week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee took aim at Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), both of whom are up next year but are not expected to face competitive challenges in states that heavily favor Republicans in presidential years.

Ensign said he is taking nothing for granted and is working to get all of his colleagues who are facing voters next year engaged now and in a good position heading into next year.

“The one thing about it is that no one should be taken by surprise,” he said. “[Sen.] Pat Roberts in Kansas understands that he’s going to have to work a lot harder than he’s ever worked on re-election before. The nice thing is he knows it.”

He also has warned his colleagues to be aware of the pitfalls of campaigning in the modern media age — such as the expectation that a camera will be on them at all times and the consequences of “unfunny people trying to be funny.”

Former Sen. George Allen’s (R-Va.) 2006 re-election campaign unravelled after a video snippet featuring him making racially insensitive comments to supporters was widely circulated.

In January, the NRSC raised $917,000 and spent $633,000, and at the end of last month the committee showed $394,000 in the bank with debts of close to $1.3 million.

Ensign acknowledged that it took some time to heal wounds from the 2006 midterms but said that fundraising has picked up in recent weeks.

“Taking over an organization when you’re in the minority, people were displeased. Part of it was just kind of mending wounds those first couple of months, which have been mended,” he said. “Now that the Democrats are in control and we’re actually seeing what they’re doing, fundraising is getting easier.”

The DSCC, led again this cycle by Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), raised $2.2 million in January. The committee ended January with a little more than $1 million in the bank and more than $6.4 million in debt.

Ensign, who earlier this year set a fundraising goal of $119 million for the cycle, said he would probably never be satisfied with the NRSC’s fundraising.

“I have to compare myself against Chuck Schumer, and he is unbelievable,” he said.

Direct Deposits

Ensign said he is focusing more on raising money directly for incumbents and candidates than for the committee. A Louisville, Ky., fundraiser Friday night featuring President Bush was expected to raise at least $2 million for the NRSC and McConnell.

“In the past other chairmen have wanted everything to run through the committee,” he said. “I just want victories. We’re taking the candidates — this year the incumbents, next year the challengers — all around the country and raising them money.”

When it comes to candidate recruitment, Ensign had some candid comments about self-funding candidates — who are often sought out by party leaders as campaigns have become more and more costly.

Last cycle, Republicans nominated millionaire Senate candidates in Washington and Nebraska, but both never fully gained traction and the races never achieved top-tier status.

“Just writing a check does not win you a race. You have to be able to raise money, work hard, you have to be able to handle the issues,” Ensign said.

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