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McConnell’s Unseen Hand at the NRSC

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blessed Sen. Jerry Moran’s bid to helm the National Republican Senatorial Committee only after the Kansan agreed to a restructured NRSC that calls for him to share power with two vice chairmen.

The NRSC chairman is an elected position, and Moran ran unopposed for the slot. But there was considerable resistance to the freshman senator’s bid by McConnell and other GOP leaders, who furiously attempted to recruit a member they considered higher profile and more politically seasoned, multiple Republican sources have confirmed.

To assuage that concern and reassure the conference, Moran agreed to accept an NRSC leadership triumvirate that includes Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the vice chairman for finance, and Texas Sen.-elect Ted Cruz, the vice chairman for grass-roots outreach. These positions did not previously exist, and both men have been granted at least some authority over committee strategy and staff hires.

“There were a lot of questions about whether [Moran] had the horsepower for the job at this level,” a Republican lobbyist with relationships in the Senate said. “They purposely brought these two guys in to help Jerry.”

The Republicans, after losing two seats in the Nov. 6 elections, need to gain six seats in 2014 to capture the majority. In statement provided to CQ Roll Call for this story, McConnell complimented Moran’s embrace of the NRSC’s new leadership structure. The minority leader’s office did not deny McConnell’s influence in the creation of this regime. Some Republican operatives have suggested that the Kentuckian’s involvement means he is particularly invested in, and responsible for, Moran’s success or failure.

“The chairman-elect met with every member of the caucus, took their input to heart, and I applaud his selection of vice chairs. We have a great team over at the NRSC to take the majority,” said McConnell, who is up for re-election. “Sen. Moran has already met with his NRSC leadership team several times, and they are hitting the ground running.”

A source familiar with Moran’s thinking conceded that the restructuring of the NRSC leadership was a late development, coming several months after the Kansan first told McConnell of his plans to run for chairman. It also came about in the midst of McConnell’s futile attempts to recruit another candidate for the job — along with Portman, Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Marco Rubio of Florida all said no.

Vice Chairmen Are No Figureheads

Moran appears to have embraced the addition of two vice chairmen to NRSC leadership, which was announced to the GOP Conference by McConnell during the Nov. 14 meeting held to elect leaders for the 113th Congress. Cruz is expected to serve as the NRSC point man for candidate recruitment; Portman only agreed to take his position if it carried with it executive authority over finance strategy and staff. Portman declined to run for chairman but was intrigued by having a stake in fundraising — one of his strong suits.

In fact, the Ohioan is drawing up the NRSC’s fundraising strategy for the 2014 cycle and is expected to rely on his own finance team, including national fundraising consultant Heather Larrison, to execute much of it. Larrison consulted for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, during his 2012 re-election and previously advised former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour during his tenure as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Moran and Portman have met four times to discuss fundraising strategy; donors have been called and trips have been scheduled. Among Moran’s goals: increase the number of major donors who are regular NRSC contributors. Portman’s reputation among, and relationships with, donors on K Street, Wall Street and around the country — and Moran’s lack thereof — is considered key to achieving the committee’s finance goals.

“I think [Moran] understood he would need the help,” said a Republican operative with knowledge of how the NRSC’s power-sharing arrangement came about. Outside of Koch Industries, Kansas is hardly a hotbed of wealthy Republican donors from which to draw on, and Moran is a complete unknown in national GOP finance circles.

Cruz’s role appears less defined than Portman’s. But like the Ohioan, the senator-elect was disinclined to accept the position of vice chairman of grass-roots outreach if it was a figurehead post that didn’t carry influence or responsibility inside the NRSC.

Republicans familiar with the committee and Cruz’s involvement say they expect him to take the lead in helping the NRSC navigate the tricky politics of GOP primaries, though not necessarily by strong-arming the process and clearing the field for a favored candidate. Rather, Cruz would meet with conservative and GOP stakeholders at the local and state levels to help identify prospective Senate candidates and determine who has on-the-ground support and who might be able to emerge as a consensus candidate.

Cruz’s power to hire or sign off on senior staff remains unclear. But his small circle of senior advisers could play a significant role in his NRSC duties. They include newly hired Chief of Staff Chip Roy, a former Senate aide who recently served as an adviser to Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Jason Johnson, Cruz’s chief political consultant during his Senate campaign; and John Drogin, his campaign manager.

Moran Could Surprise His Detractors

Senators can be especially protective of their turf, and that has left some Republicans around town wondering how the NRSC is going to operate this cycle, even as they lauded Moran’s decision to accept Portman and Cruz in the committee’s leadership structure. But some have cautioned against underestimating Kansas’ junior senator, saying he is a hard worker and savvy political operator who could surprise many political observers.

Moran hails from a solid Republican state and did not face tough competition in his only general election Senate campaign. But he won the GOP Senate nomination in a brutal primary against an opponent with more support among national conservative figures, including Sarah Palin, and that experience could come in handy for a party that has lost winnable races in recent elections because it failed to nominate the more electable candidate.

“He knows how these things work,” said the source familiar with Moran’s thinking. “A year from now his skeptics will not be skeptics anymore.”

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