Ensign: NRSC Regains Footing

Posted January 30, 2008 at 6:35pm

While acknowledging that he will fall short of his $119 million fundraising goal this cycle, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) said Wednesday that the committee is on its strongest footing in at least two cycles with cash in the bank to take on a powerful Democratic money machine.

Ensign, speaking in an interview at the NRSC headquarters, didn’t attempt to downplay the difficulties Republicans face in 2008, a presidential election year in which 23 GOP-held seats are up for election compared with just a dozen Democratic slots. But Ensign said he has a lot more to crow about after the final quarter of 2007 proved that Republican donors are renewing their commitment to the party, and that his restructuring has made the NRSC leaner and a better manager of its books.

“It’s been a very difficult year fundraising for Republicans — everyone recognizes that. But it got far better as the year went on,” Ensign said. “People wouldn’t even take my phone calls in New York in the beginning of the year. … Donors were really down. But after seeing what Democrats were like, they were like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get in the game.’”

“It’s getting easier in the last few months to raise money,” Ensign added.

In their final fundraising tally for 2007, Senate Republicans will report having $12.08 million in cash on hand after having raised $31.8 million for the year. The committee spent some $19.9 million last year, but also closed out the first 12 months with no debt. The NRSC continues to trail the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in fundraising, but Ensign was quick to point out that his committee has more money in the bank than it did when the GOP had a Senate majority.

Ensign noted that in December 2003, the NRSC had just $8.56 million in the bank, while it finished 2005 with only $10.5 million.

Although the DSCC declined on Wednesday to reveal its year end fundraising numbers — the figures are due out today — there’s little doubt it will remain well ahead of the GOP in virtually every fundraising category, as it was for all of 2007.

The power of Democrats’ fundraising is a reality that’s not lost on Ensign. Having reached just over a quarter of his original $119 million target for the two-year cycle so far, Ensign acknowledged that he won’t meet that goal, which was the amount raised by the DSCC during the 2006 cycle.

“I don’t think so,” Ensign said of raising the $119 million. “But I’m going to do the best I possibly can.”

While Republicans look to put a positive spin on their position, Democrats are quick to argue that Ensign’s problems go deeper than fundraising, and include candidate recruitment and incumbent retention.

The incumbent retention charge could be considered dubious, as Republican incumbents have chosen to re-up in the tough, Democratic-leaning states of Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon, while two of the retirements — Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and John Warner (R-Va.) — could be chalked up to illness and age, respectively.

However, Ensign has experienced recruiting difficulties, failing to sign top-tier candidates in several Republican-leaning states where the Democratic incumbent is running for re-election, including Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Ensign was successful at recruiting a big-time challenger in Louisiana, where state Treasurer John Kennedy is running against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D).

“This NRSC has raised less money, recruited fewer challengers and retained fewer incumbents than [North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole] did,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said. “They can explain away those results however they want, but the fact is that they haven’t met their own publicly stated goals and they enter the election year playing defense across the country without the resources they said they needed to be successful.”

The playing field for Senate Republicans is treacherous.

Ensign is facing tough races with incumbents in at least four Democratic-leaning seats, as well as competitive contests in at least three Republican-held open seats — Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia. With that in mind, Ensign said his focus through the November elections is to run the most efficient committee he can, spending less and bringing in more so as to ensure the NRSC has enough money to stay competitive with the DSCC.

Perhaps anticipating criticism that there is little in the way of a silver lining in the NRSC’s dark cloud, Ensign argued that if he wanted to “falsely inflate the numbers” he could spend a lot more to raise more — particularly via direct mail. But the Nevada Republican said he’d have less in the bank to help GOP incumbents come the fall in what has been an uphill cycle since Day One.

Asked whether he regrets setting out the ambitious $119 million fundraising goal at the beginning of 2007, Ensign said: “You’ve got to set lofty goals. You don’t hear a single team that doesn’t set a goal of winning the Super Bowl each year.”

Even so, Ensign is still willing to crack a smile heading into 2008 because he says his NRSC has more cash on hand than the committee has had in the first year of a two-year cycle since new campaign finance laws severely restricted the types of donations campaign committee could solicit.

Ensign attributed the current financial soundness to a newly restructured NRSC that has streamlined expenses while adding new technologies and programs, while hiring a more experienced and smaller — albeit better-paid — staff.

Also helping matters is the fact that GOP donors are worried about key issues like spending and now recognize that Democrats stand to shrink the Senate GOP’s numbers to a point where Republicans can no longer prevent the majority’s initiatives through the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

This fact is beginning to crystallize in the minds of Republican donors, both small and large.

In the months ahead, Ensign is hoping the NRSC will continue to keep its books in the black and that the political environment — including a worthy Democratic presidential adversary — brings financial spoils for the GOP.

Ensign acknowledged the challenges the NRSC still faces in 2008, especially in persuading his Senate colleagues to contribute and raise money on behalf of the committee. Senator participation has been a perennial problem for the NRSC, exacerbated by the fact that Democratic Senators have consistently been strong contributors to the DSCC, with several already handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars during this cycle.

“Campaign transfers are by far the most difficult,” Ensign said. “Members always feel that if they raise money for their campaign that their donors won’t like it if they give it away.”

Ensign said that while he’s making as many fundraising calls as DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), “there’s a huge difference in the commitment of their Members than with ours.”

The Nevada Republican promised “consequences” for Republican Senators who don’t do their part, including refusing future NRSC help to any individual who won’t participate.

“Our guys aren’t hungry enough,” Ensign added. “They don’t realize the consequences. That’s the reality. There’s been a few of them [who are helping], but not enough of them.”