Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is working hard to elect more Republicans to the Senate and hasn’t ruled out personally targeting incumbent Democrats. But one stop not on his midterm itinerary is Nevada, home to politically vulnerable Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The Kentucky Republican has traveled extensively to campaign and raise money for GOP candidates and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, with plans to accelerate those efforts as Nov. 2 approaches. But while McConnell has left open the option of campaigning directly against incumbent Democratic Senators, even traveling to their home states to do so, targeting Reid is off the table.
“Everything else is in play,” one Republican source said, including a visit to Washington state to campaign against Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray, if Dino Rossi, the likely GOP nominee in that race, were to request McConnell’s presence.
In a brief interview recently, McConnell said growing the ranks of Republican Senators is among his top priorities.
“I’ve been doing a lot of [campaigning] already,” McConnell said. “It’s a very high agenda item. We would like to improve our numbers, and I’m certainly going to use every bit of spare time I can muster to try to bring that about.”
McConnell, a former two-term NRSC chairman, has been active on the campaign front. He plans to contribute the maximum allowed to every Republican Senate nominee, and he has attended roughly 30 fundraising events for the NRSC, second only to Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) among GOP Senators. More than half of those events were held outside of Washington, D.C., in at least a dozen states.
McConnell travels regularly to New York to fundraise and has donated generously through his political action committee. He joined Cornyn both in Bismarck, N.D., for Gov. John Hoeven’s declaration that he would run for Senate and in San Antonio for Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s announcement that she would remain in the Senate through 2012 rather than resign before her term is up.
“Mitch has indicated that he can’t think of anything more important, beyond his family, than helping us grow our numbers in November,” Cornyn said. “He’s been very active traveling around the country and working with me to recruit candidates and get the resources we need to win.”
“He’s been terrific,” added Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is serving as NRSC vice chairman for the second consecutive election cycle. “He’s raised a lot of money. He’s gone multiple places, time after time. I know how hard that is.”
However, McConnell will not campaign against Reid, according to GOP sources, despite the fact that the Majority Leader is among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents on the ballot this year.
McConnell’s decision, which follows Reid’s move to avoid directly attacking the Minority Leader during his somewhat competitive 2008 re-election bid, is an unspoken deal between the two Senators to return some of the decorum lost in the chamber in 2004. That year, then-
Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) traveled to South Dakota to campaign against then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a deviation from tradition that rankled even many Republicans who were otherwise happy to see Daschle ousted.
“McConnell’s view is that we can have the most aggressive opposition possible. But at the end of the day, the Senate has to run,” the Republican source said. “To do that, the two leaders need to have a relationship.”
This slight bit of comity is possible in part because McConnell and Reid have managed to maintain good relations in the midst of the 111th Congress’ hyperpartisan atmosphere. Still, the return to decorum has not included the campaign committees. The NRSC has continued to aggressively target Reid, just as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee consistently attacked McConnell in 2008.
With anti-establishment, anti-incumbent sentiment running hot, McConnell may not be a useful nor welcome presence in some races this year. But his leadership post means he is in a position to raise more money for Senate candidates and the NRSC than anyone in the country, save possibly for Cornyn.
And that money — especially through the auspices of the NRSC — will find its way into every Senate race the GOP is targeting, including Reid’s contest against former Nevada Assemblywoman Sharron Angle (R). Republicans, who need to win 10 seats to retake the Senate majority, are targeting a total of 11, including five open seats and six held by Democratic incumbents.
Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), who is also up for re-election this fall, called McConnell’s role in the GOP’s midterm campaign “very crucial.” Thune beat Daschle in 2004 in a nail-biter. The Democrats did not field a candidate against Thune this year.
“If we were to be successful and win some seats in November, he would be the guy running the agenda, and I think his presence out there is important,” Thune said. “To the extent that there are people out there who don’t like the establishment or don’t like the people who are currently in the leadership of the government, it still really is a resource battle, and to a large extent these campaigns are going to be successful or not successful based upon whether or not we can resource our candidates. That is where a party leader like Sen. McConnell can be extremely effective.”
Sen. Mike Johanns , who won election in 2008, said McConnell’s encouragement was a significant factor in his decision to run for the Senate. And even though his contest ultimately wasn’t competitive, the Nebraska Republican said he felt good knowing he could rely on McConnell’s assistance if he needed it.
“I didn’t have to hope and pray that they’d bring the ads and the money because it just wasn’t necessary. But I had that reassurance that that insurance policy was there if I needed it,” he said.