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NRSC Searches for More Targets

GOP Forced to Play Defense

With the 2008 Senate battleground increasingly inhospitable for the minority, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is attempting to overcome several built-in disadvantages while moving to maximize its limited opportunities.

The NRSC has almost twice as many seats to defend as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, yet barely half the cash on hand. To compensate, the NRSC is conserving its resources for the home stretch while counting on smart polling and effective opposition research to prevent the DSCC from steamrolling its candidates one year from now.

“I’m very realistic that the deck is stacked against us. But any poker player will tell you, it’s how you play those cards that counts,” said Mike Slanker, the NRSC’s political director. “It’s obvious we will be outspent. But rest assured, we will have the dollars we need to compete and win.”

The DSCC, led by Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), questioned exactly what cards the NRSC has to play.

“The NRSC’s rhetoric would be a lot more impressive if it were backed up by results,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said. “I have lost count of how many Republican Senators have job-approval ratings in the 40s, and voters consistently say they prefer Democrats by double-digit margins.”

Of the 34 Senate seats up for election this cycle, the NRSC must defend a whopping 22.

Within that framework, Slanker said his committee’s two biggest challenges are finding a way to defeat popular former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), who is running for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. John Warner (R), and overcoming a fundraising disparity that found the DSCC leading the NRSC in banked cash at the end of August, $20.6 million to $7.1 million.

After the DSCC’s $3.5 million debt is accounted for, its 3-1 cash advantage drops to about 2-1 over the NRSC, which has zero debt.

Adding to the NRSC’s challenges, four of the seats up for re-election next year are in Democratic-leaning blue states — Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon — while two are in the red states of Colorado and Virginia but in serious jeopardy of flipping thanks to the impending retirement of Warner and Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.).

Further putting the NRSC on the defensive is Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) decision to retire and the possibility that former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) might run for his old job — not to mention the legal jeopardy Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) finds himself in and the possibility that iconic Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) might have lost some of his luster with voters in the Land of Enchantment, according to recent polls.

Also, there is still a chance that red-state Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) could face competitive contests, as could Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Meanwhile, the NRSC has been unable to dig up a threatening challenger for any of the 12 Democratic seats up next year, save for Louisiana.

Slanker indicated that, other than the potential for South Dakota to develop into a top-tier pickup opportunity, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) appears to be it for the NRSC this cycle in terms of legitimate targets.

“There aren’t a whole lot of targets. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few big ones,” Slanker said.

With its heavy Republican bent, South Dakota is a natural GOP target, especially in a presidential cycle. But Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who is planning to run for re-election, remains popular and has engendered more goodwill during his recovery from a brain aneurysm he suffered in December.

In Louisiana, however, the NRSC appears to have a real find in state Treasurer John Kennedy (R), a former Democrat. Kennedy is expected to make his candidacy official sometime after the Pelican State’s Oct. 20 elections, in which he is running unopposed for a third term as treasurer.

A Democratic strategist argued that any political advantage Republicans have in Louisiana will be for naught if the NRSC can’t afford to spend money on the race.

“Because of their fundraising disadvantage, they’re going to have to defend lots and lots of incumbents before they start going after any Democrats,” the Democratic strategist said. “Where does the money to spend in Louisiana come from?”

Despite the NRSC’s defensive posture and lack of recruits for most of the 12 Democratic-held seats up for election, the committee remains bullish on its chances. Republicans who monitor Congressional races also are buoyed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (N.Y.) status as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, as they believe her high negatives among Republicans will energize the base to turn out for the Republican nominee.

Republican strategists also argue that President Bush’s drag on GOP candidates is likely to diminish once a presidential nominee is chosen and begins the process of rebranding the party. A generic ballot lead that favors the Democratic Party in most states should begin to decline at that point — particularly if Clinton is the party’s presidential nominee, many GOP strategists believe.

The four most heavily targeted Republican incumbents, Slanker said, are prepared for a battle that they know is coming and are facing unexciting Democratic challengers with records that easily are exploited.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) has more money in the bank thus far than he spent in his entire 2002 victory over former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D). In that race, Republicans say she started out ahead of him in the polls — just as she is now — and went on to outspend him for the contest. Some Republicans believe that scenario will repeat itself once voters are reminded about everything they didn’t like about Shaheen’s tenure as governor.

The DSCC’s Miller countered with a November 2001 poll that showed Sununu leading Shaheen, 50 percent to 38 percent.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) is fielding a challenge by state Speaker Jeff Merkley (D), who, according to Republicans monitoring this race, is vulnerable courtesy of his state legislative voting record.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) polls higher than any other politician in the Pine Tree State, Democrat or Republican, according to one GOP strategist, and is facing Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine).

In Minnesota, Republicans believe Sen. Norm Coleman (R) is going to face comedian Al Franken, who is running against attorney Mike Ciresi in the Democratic primary. Many Republicans, while acknowledging that Coleman has a fight on his hands, feel that running against Franken could give him the upper hand.

In Colorado, Republicans are touting former Rep. Bob Schaffer, noting that he appears to have avoided a bloody primary — which has not been the case lately for Republicans running for statewide office in the Centennial State — and is raising money, a task that is normally not his strong suit. And, Schaffer is running against Rep. Mark Udall (D), who Republicans contend has too liberal of a Congressional voting record for most Coloradans.

In Virginia, Republicans admit privately that former Gov. Warner is going to be an extremely tough candidate to beat. Slanker declined to reveal whether he would prefer Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) or former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) as the GOP nominee and said the NRSC is staying out of the primary there and in other states.

Some Republicans suggest that Warner’s popularity might take a hit once he is running an active campaign and is forced to explain how he would vote on the highly partisan issues that come up in Congress — and once he has to explain his record on taxes as governor.

Republicans are hoping that the race for control of the Senate will boil down to a couple of states, a scenario they believe would be manageable and allow them to weather the disadvantages they face now and still could be dealing with at this time next year.

“We need a couple breaks,” Slanker said. “And I would argue we’ve gotten a couple breaks.”

The DSCC doesn’t expect the NRSC to threaten its candidates in 2008.

“We’ve had a great year recruiting and fundraising, and because of it Senate Republicans are going to spend the next year playing defense,” said the DSCC’s Miller.

One GOP consultant with at least one Senate Republican as a client gave the NRSC mixed reviews thus far — although this political professional acknowledged that Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), the committee’s chairman, is saddled with a tough task that hasn’t been made any easier by retirements and the mood of the country.

This strategist said the NRSC is doing a good job of helping Republican candidates from a strategic standpoint, especially in terms of opposition research and its increased Internet presence. But this consultant noted that a Congressional campaign committee’s two big tasks are recruiting and fundraising — two areas where the NRSC has fallen short thus far compared to the DSCC.

However, this consultant said, the most targeted Republican incumbents are aware of the NRSC’s limitations. They are preparing for a barrage from the DSCC similar to what happened in 2006, just in case it happens again.

“It’s more of a Schumer effect, in that Republican candidates look at what Schumer was able to do in terms of pouring money in late [in the previous cycle]. They are using every day possible to raise money and be prepared for an onslaught at the end,” the GOP consultant said.

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