Although the job is typically reserved for the party’s more conservative lawmakers, Senate Republicans appear likely to enlist a moderate-minded colleague to head up their campaign committee next cycle — a move that could prove either devastating or brilliant for a party in transition.
Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.) have quietly emerged as the Senate GOP’s leading contenders to chair the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2010. Both Coleman and Corker are viewed as ambitious team players who have proved to be strong fundraisers for the party, but neither has the reputation of a partisan bomb-thrower that typically characterizes an NRSC chairman.
Both men have been known to break ranks with their leadership at times, and have even billed themselves as Senators who are more focused on accomplishments than inter-party bickering. Corker ran and won in 2006 by appealing to independents, while Coleman is looking to do much of the same as he fights to win a second term next November.
Yet despite Corker’s and Coleman’s sometimes middle-of-the-road political approach, Republican Senators and aides suggested the two may be the best the NRSC could hope for in what’s expected to be another grueling cycle. The current chairman, Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), has all but ruled out another two years at the committee.
“I don’t care how moderate they are,” one Republican leadership aide said of Coleman and Corker. “It’s more important that the NRSC chairman have political savvy than a certain ideological bent.”
Indeed, political know-how may prove to be the most important skill for the next NRSC chairman in a cycle that puts 19 Republican seats in play against 15 Democratic-held seats. Republicans are hoping that whoever gets the NRSC job in the 2010 cycle can capitalize on public discontent with the Democratic Congressional majority, and perhaps a Democratic president.
“I think if [Sen.] Hillary [Rodham] Clinton [D-N.Y.] is elected president of the United States in 2008, Republicans could regain the majority in 2010,” Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) said. “So it could be pretty good time to be the chairman of the NRSC — prospects could be pretty good.”
The NRSC job hasn’t been highly sought-after of late. Democrats are expected to expand their 51-seat majority in 2008. In fact, Ensign only agreed to accept the chairmanship in this cycle under heavy pressure from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who at the time offered him a plum slot on the powerful Finance Committee and a line into the leadership. Ensign took on difficult odds having to defend 22 Republican-held seats — nearly twice as many as the Democrats.
2010 is looking to be a tough recruiting year for the NRSC chairmanship as well, since only a handful of GOP Senators are even eligible to take on a post that is reserved for Senators who aren’t up for re-election. The lion’s share of the Republican Conference’s conservative, younger members — often looked to for the NRSC job — were first elected in 2004 and will be focused on winning second Senate terms come 2010.
Assuming he wins re-election next year, Coleman is an obvious choice for the job in 2010 given that he unsuccessfully ran for the job in the 2006 cycle, losing by just one vote to Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.). One senior Republican Senate aide called Coleman “the prohibitive favorite” if he returns for a second term.
“He wanted it once. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t want it again,” the aide said.
And while several Republican Senators said they believe Coleman wants and will seek the NRSC job if he wins in 2008, the Minnesota Republican won’t even publicly entertain the possibility.
“I am absolutely, totally focused on my reelection,” he said. “I am focused on doing my job in the Senate and I am going to continue doing my job.”
First elected in 2006, Corker is among the Republicans’ greenest members — a fact that could prove disadvantageous for him if he opted to make a run for the NRSC. The committee chairman is required to lean heavily on fellow Senators to open their wallets to the party — a daunting task even for the most seasoned Senate veterans.
But Corker isn’t without his share of fundraising experience, including having served as chairman of the 2007 President’s Dinner, one of the NRSC’s biggest moneymakers. The senior Republican Senate aide said Corker “did really well financially, even though he’s not been around for very long.”
Like Coleman, however, Corker won’t speculate about any future in the Republican leadership, saying only that he would be spending the holidays “reflecting on the different directions I’d like to take in the Senate.”
“This year I took a lot of time to focus on policy,” Corker said. “I’m going to sit down again and see where things are.”
If either Coleman or Corker were to win the job as the Senate’s top GOP fundraiser a year from now, he would undoubtedly bring a new kind of face to the NRSC. The job requires courting GOP contributors, traveling the country to recruit candidates and helping advocate the party message.
If viewed as too centrist, the next NRSC chairman could have trouble commanding credibility with conservative donors and in lobbing attacks against Democratic candidates across the country. On the flip side, a moderate leader of the committee could have more success attracting independent-minded candidates and new donors in swing states who may prove critical for any GOP challenges to Democratic seats.
“It could be a little bit tougher for a moderate, but we face a very different environment in 2009 than we did in 2007,” one knowledgeable Republican said. “The Democrats have done in the last few months what Republicans [used to be] so good at doing — stepping on themselves. The tax issue alone has forced Republicans to go home and start writing checks.”