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Will Old Ties Put GOP in a Bind?

Portman, Blunt Tagged ‘Insiders’

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is clearly smitten with the candidacies of former Rep. Rob Portman in Ohio and Rep. Roy Blunt in Missouri, but will the two men’s ties to the Washington, D.C., political establishment and the Bush administration come back to haunt the GOP in 2010?

That’s not just a question being asked by Democratic operatives — it has become a real concern of some Republican strategists.

Acknowledging the success that former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) had in clearing primary fields for his favored

candidates during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) has made it clear he intends to get more involved in GOP primaries if it will boost the party’s general election prospects.

No official endorsement has come down from the NRSC or Cornyn when it comes to Blunt and Portman, but the chairman and committee officials haven’t been shy about talking up the strengths of the two men when it comes to their Senate bids.

The political know-how and massive fundraising networks that both Portman and Blunt possess can’t be disputed. But Portman is a two-time appointee and personal friend of Bush, while Blunt is a former House Republican Whip, not to mention a man who owes his ascent to leadership to the likes of former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Considering the success that Democrats had in 2008 running on an anti-George W. Bush, anti-Washington message, some Republicans wonder if the political pedigrees of Portman and Blunt might actually do the party more harm than good in two key Senate open-seat battles this cycle.

“Getting involved with the right candidates is the right thing to do. The question is are these folks the right candidates?” one Washington-based Republican strategist said Wednesday. “Democrats have to be salivating over the opportunity to run against folks who are pretty closely associated with Bush.”

And to complicate things for the NRSC, there appears to be a clear “anti-Washington” alternative available in both races.

In Missouri, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman (R) is also mulling a bid in the race to replace retiring Sen. Kit Bond (R). Since making her interest in the Senate seat known, Steelman — who lost the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2008 to then-Rep. Kenny Hulshof — has embraced the role of Beltway outsider with pointed remarks about the need for the party to stand up to Washington’s “powerbrokers.”

“I think the public really spoke in November about how they feel about Washington experience and where it’s gotten us in the last eight to 10 years. … I think they want something different,” Steelman said Wednesday.

If party leaders do line up behind Blunt, Steelman said, it would hardly be anything new, and she predicted it would only help the former leader raise even more special interest money from lobbyists.

“That’s part of the Washington culture,” she said. “That’s part of the problem.”

In Ohio, state Auditor Mary Taylor could likewise embrace that same outsider mantle against Portman if she chooses to enter the GOP race to succeed retiring Sen. George Voinovich (R). Taylor, a certified personal accountant who served two terms in the Ohio House, may not have the massive fundraising capabilities of Portman, but she also doesn’t have personal ties to Bush. Portman was Bush’s Office of Management and Budget director as well as a U.S. trade representative during his administration.

“There’s no question Democrats would much rather face Rob Portman than Mary Taylor in the general election,” one GOP consultant sympathetic to Taylor said on Wednesday.

Indeed, DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz hasn’t been shy about talking up Portman’s ties to Bush.

“Given the state of the Republican brand right now, I’m not sure running the faces of the party establishment is the best move for the other side,” Schultz said. “I think the last person Ohioans need right now to turn around the economy is the person responsible for George Bush’s trade policy.”

Still, most Republicans firmly believe that when it comes to being battle-tested, running tough campaigns and raising massive sums of money, the Republican Party couldn’t do much better than Blunt and Portman. Therefore, some party operatives say, the NRSC would be justified in helping the two men avoid a primary that could weaken their position in the state.

“You can objectively look down at [Portman and Blunt] and say they are the best options we got. You can’t fault [the NRSC] for getting the best possible candidate in the race. … That’s what Schumer did,” another GOP strategist said.

Schumer didn’t hesitate from wading into competitive primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia in 2006, and as a result Democrats ended up picking off Senate seats in all three states.

NRSC officials said Democrats are hoping to find any opportunity to rerun the 2008 election over again. And if Democrats really wanted to run against Portman and Blunt, it’s unlikely they would be so vocal in attacking them as establishment insiders so early on in the cycle, they said.

“It sounds like Senate Democrats haven’t gotten the memo that George Bush isn’t president anymore and certainly won’t be on voters’ minds two years from now,” NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said Wednesday. “With Democrats now in control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, they better be prepared to have some answers to the serious problems facing the country because these same, tired attacks are yesterday’s news.”

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