NRSC Fundraising Top Priority in 2010

Posted November 19, 2008 at 6:41pm

Incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) is looking to take a page out of Sen. Charles Schumer’s (N.Y.) successful playbook at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, vowing to milk his home state for money and take an aggressive role in primaries.

Under Schumer during the 2006 and 2008 cycles, campaign cash flowed freely from New York donors into DSCC coffers, with the chairman recruiting candidates regardless of ideology whom he deemed the best fit for a particular state — muscularly inserting himself into Democratic primaries to pull his hand-picked candidate across the finish line when necessary.

Cornyn, based in a big GOP-leaning state that is loaded with wealthy Republican donors, said in an interview Wednesday he plans to run the NRSC similarly, although he did not specifically cite Schumer as his model. Acknowledging that the 2010 Senate map is inhospitable to the GOP, Cornyn pledged an attempt to make each of the 15 Democratic seats up in 2010 a GOP target, including the one held by Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.).

“We’ve got to win some elections,” Cornyn said during a brief exchange just off the Senate floor.

Schumer won six seats in 2006, moving Senate Democrats from a 45-seat minority to a 51-seat majority. This year, Schumer helped Senate Democrats gain at least seven seats, with two still outstanding, for a strengthened majority that currently stands at 58 seats.

Cornyn assumes control of the NRSC with a now severely diminished minority and tough road ahead, given that 19 Republican seats are up in 2010, compared with 15 for the Democrats. Of the 19 Republican seats that are up, several are in potentially competitive states, including Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Cornyn immediately got to work after being elected NRSC chairman on Tuesday. Among the calls he was expected to make first were to Republican incumbents who are up for re-election in 2010, as he seeks to persuade them not to retire. Cornyn’s first move as chairman was to hire Rob Jesmer as executive director.

Earlier Wednesday, current NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) reviewed his two years at the helm, noting that fundraising and candidate recruitment fell short of his expectations, even as significant improvements were made to modernize the committee’s internal operations and build an e-mail donor list virtually from scratch.

Cornyn, in discussing his plans to push NRSC fundraising into parity with the DSCC, sidestepped talk about Member transfers, a sensitive issue but among the keys to Schumer’s success in building the Democratic majority. Schumer was successful in appealing to his caucus for several million dollars in transfers, while similar pleas from Ensign and recent NRSC chairmen fell largely on deaf ears.

But in expressing as one of his primary goals improving NRSC fundraising in general, Cornyn emphasized his access to Texas donors and his plans to mine them assiduously. Texas Rep. Pete Sessions was elected chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday, and Cornyn conceded that he views the Congressman as a competitor for cash back home.

Ensign expects Cornyn’s Texas ties to be an immediate asset.

“I saw what a huge advantage New York State was for Chuck Schumer,” Ensign said during a news conference. “When you look at Texas and the amount of people that they have in Texas and the amount of money that is in Texas … I think that he’s going to be able to compete and be able to raise the amount of fundraising tremendously.”

Cornyn, faced with trying to raise money for Republicans at a time when they are shut out of the White House and in a distinct minority in both chambers of Congress, said he would look to GOP presidential aspirants to help raise money, while also seeking to innovate. One Republican source said Cornyn’s initial focus in taking the reins of the NRSC will be on the committee’s fundraising operations.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), instrumental in helping Ensign raise money for the NRSC this past cycle, was noncommittal Wednesday when asked if he would be willing to reprise the same role under Cornyn.

“It’s up to Sen. Cornyn, whatever he wants me to do,” Hatch said as he was walking into the Senate Republican Conference Steering Committee lunch.

Ensign was dealt a tough Senate map this year, with 22 Republican seats up, including a handful in Democratic-leaning states, compared with just 12 for the Democrats. The 2010 cycle — the first midterms of President-elect Barack Obama’s tenure — doesn’t bode much better for Cornyn.

In being careful not to criticize Ensign, Cornyn suggested he intends to beef up recruiting, including in those states that would appear to be off-limits politically. Responding to a reporter who suggested that targeting Sen. Daniel Inouye’s (D-Hawaii) seat was unrealistic, Cornyn indicated otherwise.

“Well, I don’t know, you have a term-limited governor in Hawaii, who is a Republican. I wouldn’t take anything off the table,” Cornyn said, referencing two-term Gov. Linda Lingle, who remains popular. “We’re going to pursue every opportunity.”

Ensign offered that Senate Republicans might have fared better in 2008 had more Democratic incumbents faced tough races — the GOP failed to put up viable candidates in conservative-leaning states such as Arkansas, Montana and South Dakota, to name a few. Schumer in 2006 moved aggressively to clear primaries for now-Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.), who is against abortion rights, and now-Sen. Jim Webb (Va.), who also doesn’t consistently hew to traditional Democratic orthodoxy. In 2008, the DSCC waded into the Oregon primary that eventually produced Sen-elect Jeff Merkley (D).

Similarly, Cornyn indicated that he is reserving the right to participate in GOP primaries and move to clear them of undesirable candidates. Cornyn also intends to recruit the candidate who he believes is best suited to win, as opposed to who is the most ideologically pure.

Republican sources say Cornyn is under no illusion about the difficulty of his assignment. The next election could be a repeat of 2002, when President George W. Bush defied history and picked up seats in his first midterms — or mirror 1994, when President Bill Clinton and his party lost control of Congress in a rout.

But Cornyn’s goal is to prepare well, putting Senate Republicans in a position to capitalize on any reversal in a political environment that currently finds Obama and Congressional Democrats riding high.

“My job as I see it is to make sure Republicans win, and so I’ll do everything I can to accomplish that goal,” Cornyn said.