Dayton, Nelson and Stabenow at top of GOP hit list in 2006

Democratic Sens. Mark Dayton (Minn.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) will top the Republican hit list under Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), the new head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

A GOP aide close to Dole said Tuesday — a day before Dole eked out a 28-27 win over Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.) to become NRSC chairwoman — confirmed that Florida, where President Bush increased his margin in 2004, and the upper Midwest would figure prominently in GOP plans in 2005-2006.
Democratic Sens. Mark Dayton (Minn.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) will top the Republican hit list under Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), the new head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

A GOP aide close to Dole said Tuesday — a day before Dole eked out a 28-27 win over Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.) to become NRSC chairwoman — confirmed that Florida, where President Bush increased his margin in 2004, and the upper Midwest would figure prominently in GOP plans in 2005-2006.
patrick g. ryan
New NRSC leader Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.)

The aide added that a race against Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) “could be competitive,” as well as contests in New York, California, Tennessee and, possibly, New Jersey.

Republicans would also like to target Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), whom most on both sides of the aisle consider a likely presidential contender in 2008.

The aide said New York Gov. George Pataki (R) might make for a good Senate challenger.

Dole spokesman Brian Nick said before the vote that Dole’s goal at the NRSC would be to “grow the majority” from the 55 seats now held by Republicans.

At the news conference announcing the new Republican leadership, Dole offered little insight into her plans at the NRSC, saying, “It’s certainly an honor to join this wonderful team.”

But Dole did say that the GOP will continue to flog Democrats for, as she described it, obstructing a new energy policy, medical-liability and welfare-reform legislation, and President Bush’s judicial nominees, among other issues. “The American people need better than this,” she said.

Dole’s remarks, in which she singled out recently defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) for being the Senate Democrats’ chief obstructionist, came just moments after newly reelected Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) called for greater civility in the Senate. The GOP leadership, Frist said, would seek to “bring out the best in each and every United States senator.”

The new GOP targets underscored Coleman’s chief argument for his candidacy — namely that as a Minnesotan he was better-suited to lead the party’s Senate campaign operations in the 2006 cycle.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has been mentioned by several Republicans as a potential challenger to Kohl, said the home base of the NRSC head would have little bearing on the GOP’s prospects. “What’s important is that the resources are raised,” Ryan said, adding that either Dole or Coleman would have done a good job at that.

Coleman was an aggressive fundraiser in the past cycle. His Northstar Leadership PAC doled out $10,000 checks to Republicans running in key open seats.

Yesterday, Coleman posted a statement on his website congratulating Dole and saying he is “committed to working with her and my colleagues to retain and increase the size of our GOP Senate majority.”

After the vote, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), a Dole supporter, said the North Carolina senator’s experience as a former Cabinet member, presidential candidate and Red Cross director made her ideal for the job. Chafee acknowledged, however, that his support for Dole stemmed from a campaign stop she made on his behalf in 2000.

In the days leading up to the vote for the NRSC chairmanship — the only contested leadership position — it was unclear who would prevail. Both Dole and Coleman contended that they had enough votes to win. Sen.-elect John Thune (R-S.D.) joked, shortly before casting his vote, that Republicans might consider co-chairs at the
NRSC.

But, as Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a Coleman backer with extensive experience running for leadership positions, pointed out, vote counts often shift unbeknownst to those running. Republican senators were not bound by their word when it came to the NRSC vote because they cast secret ballots.

Before the vote, Thune would not say whom he was backing for the NRSC post.

Republican Sens.-elect Mel Martinez (Fla.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) also refused to disclose their preferences. The newly elected GOP senators — there are seven total, including five Southerners — were considered a key voting bloc in the NRSC chairmanship contest.

Chafee and Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), a Coleman backer, suggested that GOP strategy heading into the new election cycle would be the same, regardless of who heads the NRSC. Talent said that, coming from a battleground state, he expects a strong challenge in 2006 no matter what. He added that he would be focusing on a transportation bond bill in the coming Congress.

The NRSC vote came two days after Democrats tapped Sen. Charles Schumer of New York to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Republicans regard Schumer, who easily won a second term Nov. 2, as an aggressive fundraiser who could pose problems for Republicans in competitive states in 2006 such as Virginia, Nevada and Missouri.