GOP Woes Unlikely To Produce Pink Slips

Posted September 17, 2008 at 6:40pm

Even in the face of a November election that promises to push Republicans even deeper into the minority, top Senate GOP leaders appear all but guaranteed a renewal of their job contracts for at least another two years.

Republican Senators — from moderates to conservatives — said they are generally satisfied with their current leadership team and they say they do not plan to hold it responsible even if the GOP experiences devastating losses in the upcoming general election. GOP Senators say they have set realistic expectations heading into the 2008 cycle, and believe — regardless of the November outcome — that their leaders have done the best job possible under difficult circumstances.

“Two things initiate a challenge — poor performance in their job or an aggressive candidate,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who unsuccessfully ran for Conference chairman last year. “Neither of those exists.”

“If anybody was going to challenge [them], they better have started by now,” added Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), close friend and political ally of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

McConnell heads the 49-member GOP Conference, along with Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). Like McConnell, Kyl and Alexander are expected to seek and secure a second two-year term to their respective slots, positions both assumed earlier this year following internal leadership reshuffling that occurred with the surprise resignation of then-Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.). The 2008 Senate leadership elections are slated for mid-November, shortly after the Nov. 4 balloting and heading into what could be a brief lame-duck session.

Formerly the Majority Whip, McConnell was elected by acclamation to his leadership post in 2006, following the election returns that resulted in his party being stripped of control in the House and the Senate. Since then, McConnell has had his share of critics, but Republican Senators continue to pledge their loyalty, saying they are unified behind him and find little fault with his tactical decisions over the past two years.

“There’s a widespread recognition that if things go badly, it will have nothing to do with McConnell’s leadership,” Bennett argued, adding that unlike the current GOP leadership in the House that was elected on the heels of ethics scandals, McConnell entered his job with a relatively clean slate.

McConnell’s major challenge this year will be at home, where he is facing re- election to a fifth term against a well-financed Democrat, Bruce Lunsford. Democrats have tried to make McConnell a top target this cycle, but the Minority Leader has maintained his lead in the polls and is expected to hold onto his Senate seat.

While McConnell, Kyl and Alexander’s leadership jobs appear safe regardless of the election results, the picture may not be as clear on the House side where Republicans could lose more than a dozen seats. In an interview last month with Bloomberg News, even House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) acknowledged his vulnerabilities, saying: “What happens after Election Day depends on what happens in the election, but I’m not going to worry about it.’’

Challenges notwithstanding, Senate Republicans still could play some musical chairs before the next Congress. The most likely opening is at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where current chairman Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) has all but ruled out a second term. Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and John Cornyn (Texas) all have been named as possible successors.

If Cornyn ran for and won the NRSC post, he would then free up his No. 5 leadership position as the Conference vice chairman, and open up an opportunity for another Senator to join the ranks. Also, if Cornyn’s home-state colleague, GOP Policy Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison, were to resign her leadership job or her Senate seat early to run for governor, her No. 4 leadership post also could become available.

Either of the vice conference or policy gavels could prompt a flurry of interest from the ambitious rank and file, such as Coleman, Burr and Ensign or other up-and- comers such as Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.).

Still, most GOP Senators say that any of that internal maneuvering wouldn’t be affected by the November outcomes, even if Democrats achieve significant Congressional gains and get closer to reaching a 60-vote, cloture-proof margin. Democrats have set a lofty goal of winning 60 seats this year, but most agree that threshold is probably unattainable even under the best of political tailwinds.

“There would be a lot of dissatisfaction if it were to happen, but it seems less and less likely to happen,” Cornyn said Wednesday. “But the better we do, the more likely it is that there won’t be any surprising changes. At this point, it’s less likely there would be a coup.”

Republicans are fighting to defend 23 seats this cycle, compared to the Democrats’ 12. That spread, plus a significant fundraising disadvantage, has made the landscape appear daunting for GOP Senators. McConnell, in particular, has been careful to downplay promises to colleagues over the past two years, saying early on that he hoped the GOP could hold its own, and more recently acknowledging the likelihood of losses.

Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), one of the Conference’s more conservative members, said this week that unless the election “goes wildly one way or the other,” he doesn’t see any need for a sea change. “Expectations were very low,” Brownback said. “It’s a very bad cycle for us.”

Similarly, Coleman, a moderate who faces a competitive challenge this cycle from Democrat Al Franken, called leadership challenges “a non-issue.”

“I don’t think losing in a challenging environment is a reflection on or the responsibility of leadership. My sense is our leadership has done a pretty good job making the best of it,” he said.

After a long two years in the minority, Senate Republicans say they are feeling better about their lot in recent weeks, especially on the heels of a GOP presidential nominating convention that brought new energy to the candidacy of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). In tapping Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain gave GOP lawmakers new hope that they could blunt the Democrats’ momentum.

Plus, Republican Senators say they feel they will be adjourning the 110th Congress with some leverage, having forced Democrats to try to compromise on a series of energy proposals and willing to include drilling as part of a package. Even if the legislation goes nowhere, Republicans say they successfully played on offense as the session limped to a close.

“The general electoral atmosphere is trending more positively for Republicans,” one senior Senate Republican aide said. “The reality is, our leadership is actually hitting a few balls in a year in which we thought it was impossible. We’re not talking home runs, but the entire Conference should feel pretty confident about how things have gone.”

Thune, the chief deputy whip under Kyl, said “it would take a real disaster” for the current GOP Senate leadership to suffer any fallout from this year’s electoral losses. And at this point, he said, all the signs are looking positive for the party.

“All the generic ballots are moving in our direction, and overall improving our party’s prospects,” Thune said. “All of that translates into a better feeling about what we would be able to accomplish in a new Congress.”