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Ensign Sends Out an S.O.S.

Presses Colleagues for Money

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) said last week he will spend the next two weeks holding individual meetings with his GOP Senate colleagues to personally press them to raise and contribute more to the party’s 2008 effort.

Ensign’s plea for fundraising help comes on the heels of newly filed second-quarter numbers that showed the NRSC falling further behind its Democratic counterpart in overall fundraising and available cash.

As of June 30, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had almost $20.4 million on hand compared to the NRSC’s $5.5 million. However, the DSCC is still carrying $4.5 million in debt from the 2006 cycle, when the Democrats picked up six seats and seized control of the chamber.

Ensign said Senator participation is critical to the NRSC’s ability to meet its 2008 fundraising targets and compete with the powerful fundraising muscle of the DSCC.

“They need to do more,” Ensign said. “Some are very good, but there’s not enough of them. I can’t do it without their help. It’s more work and more time than it ever used to take, and I can’t do it alone.”

The June numbers alone are telling.

Last month, the NRSC received nothing in transfers from Senators’ campaign committees. GOP Senators chipped in $55,000 in June from their leadership political action committees, and only one Member wrote a personal check to the committee — $28,500 from Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.).

According to figures compiled by Democrats, the NRSC collected $292,500 in contributions from GOP Senators through the end of May. By contrast, the DSCC took in $820,000 from Senators through May, and committee officials estimate that the number topped $1 million by the end of June.

In a run-up to the meetings between Ensign and his colleagues, the NRSC is assembling individually tailored packets that the chairman will use to lay out how much Senators have raised and what more they can do to bolster the committee’s war chest. Ensign may zero in on the hefty campaign accounts of Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

The meetings are just the latest in a string of personal appeals to Senators by Ensign, who since taking the NRSC job in January has been trying various lobbying and peer-pressure tactics to encourage his colleagues to look beyond their own re-election campaigns.

“I’m trying to do positive reinforcement first,” Ensign said.

Whatever that entails, it seems likely that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), a two-term ex-NRSC chairman who also is up for re-election in 2008, will play some role in the arm-twisting.

McConnell and Ensign have worked hand-in-hand in trying to boost participation within the ranks, and McConnell has led by example by consistently being among the top fundraisers and contributors in the Conference. In the previous cycle, he was the only Senator to give $1 million to the NRSC.

Ensign set an ambitious goal to raise $119 million over the next two years, the same amount collected in the 2006 cycle by his counterpart, DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.). He has said he hopes $30 million of that will come from Senator giving and fundraising.

But so far, meeting that mark has proved daunting, as the NRSC trailed the DSCC in overall fundraising by a nearly 2-1 margin in the first six months of the cycle. Over that period, the DSCC raised $31.2 million compared to the $15.7 million collected by the NRSC.

The NRSC also is trailing where it was financially at this point in the previous cycle, when some in the party were critical of Dole, then head of the NRSC, for lagging behind the Democrats’ money pace. Through the first six months of 2005, the NRSC had raised $20.9 million and showed $8 million in the bank at the end of June.

Freshman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the lone Republican success story of 2006 who is among the NRSC’s most prolific givers this cycle, said “there’s no question” that Senator giving is a critical element of the GOP’s overall fundraising strategy.

In his case, Corker said he couldn’t have been as successful as he was last cycle if not for his now Republican colleagues’ contributions.

“I know the importance of having those additional funds,” the Tennessee Republican said. “It’s imperative they make calls. It definitely makes a difference.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who isn’t up for re-election until 2010, said Republicans enter the cycle at a disadvantage with more seats to defend and a new Democratic majority that has a greater ability to harness contributions.

But he said he still believes Republican Senators “will be financed to the degree that they need to be to mount competitive campaigns.”

“Six months in, I wouldn’t take a snapshot and say this is where we are,” Burr said. “It’s much more difficult for the committee and our candidates than it ever has been.”

Republican fundraising is down across the board, weighted by the unpopularity of President Bush and the Iraq War. Meanwhile, Democrats from the presidential election to the Congressional level are raising cash at a record-breaking pace.

Compounding the difficulty for Ensign is the fact that 22 of the 49 Republican-held seats in the chamber are up for re-election in 2008, meaning almost half of the GOP Conference is raising and stockpiling money for their own re-elections.

Included in that group are some of the Senators who have been most actively involved with the NRSC and party fundraising in the past, including Dole and Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), John Cornyn (Texas), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).

To reach the $30 million goal from Senators, Ensign has urged his colleagues to create joint fundraising committees, which allow them to raise money for their own re-election campaigns while at the same time collecting funds for their colleagues or the NRSC.

Another plank in Ensign’s effort to pry funds could be convincing two of the GOP’s most notorious cash hoards to give to the cause.

Shelby and Hutchison have some of the largest campaign war chests in the Senate, despite never facing difficult re-election races back home. Each gave the NRSC $15,000 from their PACs this year but have contributed nothing from their personal campaign accounts.

Shelby, who is up for re-election in 2010 and hasn’t faced a difficult race in years, had $12.1 million stockpiled in his campaign account as of June 30.

By comparison, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is up for re-election next year, had $3.1 million in the bank on June 30.

Hutchison, who has harbored gubernatorial ambitions for years, had $7.67 million in her campaign war chest as of June 30. Under current federal law, most of that cash could be transferred to a statewide account should she run for governor in 2010. She is not up for re-election to her Senate seat until 2012.

Last cycle, Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) donated and raised at least $1 million each for the DSCC. Overall, the DSCC bested the NRSC by nearly $30 million in 2006, a financial advantage that helped grease Democrats’ takeover of the chamber in November.

Few top-tier Senate races have materialized yet, as both parties have suffered from sluggish recruitment efforts. But the recruiting burden falls heaviest on the DSCC, and the money difference may not matter unless Democrats can produce top candidates in states such as Oregon.

And although the NRSC’s fundraising has lagged well behind the DSCC, even vulnerable GOP incumbents insist they aren’t worried about the roughly $15 million cash deficit some 15 months before the next election.

“I’ve been outspent in six of the competitive races I’ve had, but every time I’ve made sure to have the resources necessary to compete,” said Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), one of the top Democratic targets in 2008. “This year I’m doing fine. I think the committee will be there if necessary, but at the end of the day, the candidates need to know what they need to win and get it done.”

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