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GOP March On for Cash

NRSC Boosts Incumbents

With just two weeks remaining until the close of the first fundraising quarter of the 2008 cycle, Senate Republican leaders are spending the month of March playing host to a series of big-ticket events designed to add an early jolt to their GOP incumbents’ war chests.

Led by National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the GOP leadership is helping coordinate a steady stream of receptions and other events for many of their nearly two-dozen Senators facing re-election. Republican leaders believe it is particularly important to get an early and impressive start on fundraising in a competitive presidential election cycle.

“There’s definitely a huge push right now,” said a senior Republican aide. Incumbents “are all pushing to get money in by [March 31]. And Members are opening up their coffers [to help] more than ever before.”

Several GOP leadership-related fundraisers already have taken place, with several on deck in the coming days, culminating with a major NRSC “Stars and Stripes” dinner at the Mayflower Hotel on March 22.

At least three GOP leadership fundraisers will be held tonight for Senate incumbents, including one at The Caucus Room restaurant for Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) that will feature McConnell as the VIP host. A handful of Republican leaders also are coordinating with the NRSC at two additional events tonight for Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Pat Roberts (Kan.).

Looking ahead to next week, the NRSC is helping coordinate fundraisers at its Second Street Northeast offices for potentially vulnerable Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Pete Domenici (N.M.) on Monday and Thursday, respectively. GOP leaders are participating in a third event next Tuesday at The Caucus Room for Sen. Gordon Smith (Ore.) and several other in-cycle Senators.

Ensign said Tuesday that while this month’s fundraising emphasis clearly is on padding the wallets of the most vulnerable GOP Senators, leaders aren’t discounting their other incumbents. The NRSC chairman said that part of the goal is to inoculate as many of their Senators as possible from a formidable challenge and “take them off the table.”

“That’s the best thing for us,” Ensign said, adding, “It’s pretty simple — the stronger our incumbents look, the better their chances are. We are trying to get them to look as strong as possible.”

Republican leaders are hoping that by putting their own names atop fundraiser invites, the money generators will attract the early and solid support from K Street and other top GOP donors.

“It’s part of our standing operating procedure — we are trying to help our candidates who are up,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Republican Conference vice chairman, who is both hosting events and had one held on his behalf on March 1.

Cornyn said it’s very important for Republican leaders to do their part to help their colleagues make a strong showing at the outset of the cycle, adding that, “being well-funded certainly helps discourage challengers.”

“Everyone is working hard and is very focused on regaining the majority,” he said.

It’s no secret that Senate Republicans are putting a new premium on their political fundraising apparatus in the wake of the 2006 elections that sent them unexpectedly into the minority. And the party knows it faces an uphill climb not only defending its 21 GOP-held seats but also in capturing the additional one or two seats — depending on the outcome of the presidential race — needed to retake the majority.

By comparison, Democrats must defend just a dozen seats this cycle.

Smith, who is considered vulnerable because of the blue tilt of Oregon, said that he doesn’t know what the 2008 election will have in store for him, but “what I do know is that for me to win, I have to have the bank account to buy the communications to make my case to Oregonians.”

Since taking over the NRSC in January, Ensign has put in place a strategy that sets a lofty goal of raising $119 million over the next two years — the amount raised by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the previous cycle. The NRSC, by comparison, brought in $88 million in the 2006 cycle.

Ensign also has set new multimillion-dollar fundraising targets for Senators, and GOP leaders have asked lawmakers with leadership political action committees to give the maximum allowable contributions to vulnerable Republicans before March 31.

“By looking at 2006, we all understand [the challenges of] 2008,” said Coleman, one of the GOP’s most threatened Senators this cycle. “We want to make sure money isn’t going to be an issue.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who just won re-election to a third term, said money may not dissuade a worthy opponent from running, but it at least can help prepare an incumbent for the fight.

“We are all trying to do everything we can to get out early and begin the fundraising right now,” Kyl said. “[Candidates] will still have tough challenges. But the object is to be in a better position by November 2008.”

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