New senators shape NRSC vote

The seven soon-to-be-freshman members of the Senate Republican caucus remain a key wild card as Republicans head into today’s vote on the next chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Running for the leadership slot are Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina.
 
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Both Coleman and Dole claim they have the 28 votes needed to win. In recent days, the senators have circulated letters and their spokesmen have issued statements contending that they have all but locked it up. Republican Senate aides said each senator can more likely rely on a “hard count” in the low to mid-20s.

“My sense is both of them are sitting on a number that is short,” one Republican source said.

None of the Republican senators-elect except Rep. Richard Burr, meanwhile, has endorsed either Coleman or Dole, hoping to avoid nasty, intraparty scrapes with future colleagues before even setting foot in the Senate chamber. Burr, also from North Carolina, is backing Dole.

That leaves six critical votes:

Rep. Johnny Isakson, the incoming junior senator from Georgia, will likely back Dole, having run her husband Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in his home state in 1996, one Coleman supporter said. Rep. Jim DeMint, soon to replace Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), will probably vote for Coleman, Republican sources said, given that fellow South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has been a vocal Coleman backer.

It is anybody’s guess how the four remaining senators-elect — Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mel Martinez of Florida, John Thune of South Dakota and David Vitter of Louisiana — will vote. Even close allies of the two NRSC contenders acknowledge that a private word of support from one senator to another is meaningless, considering that the Republicans will cast secret ballots.

Supporters of both Coleman and Dole said the Democrats’ selection Monday of Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) served their cause.

Calling Schumer a “hyperaggressive” fundraiser, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a Coleman backer, said the GOP needs a similarly active campaigner who will help the party not only defend the 14 Republican seats up for grabs in 2006 but also expand its reach into the upper Midwest.

Coleman’s Northstar Leadership PAC doled out $198,000 to Republican candidates in the 2004 campaign cycle — including $10,000 each for the seven GOP senators-elect, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The PAC also gave $10,000 each to Sens. Jim Bunning (Ky.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). Both faced competitive races this year, and neither has committed publicly to Coleman or Dole.
By contrast, Dole’s Leadership Circle contributed $5,000 each to Burr, Coburn, DeMint, Isakson and Martinez, according to figures released by Dole’s office. The PAC also gave $7,000 apiece to Bunning and Murkowski.

Another Republican source added that Minnesota has become something of a mother lode for out-of-state Republican candidates, many of whom have traveled to the state to raise money. The source added that Coleman has helped cultivate numerous GOP donors.

Other Coleman supporters have pointed out that in the 2006 cycle it will be particularly important that Republicans have extensive fundraising connections in such battlegrounds as Minnesota and Wisconsin, where Sens. Mark Dayton (D) and Herb Kohl (D), respectively, are up for reelection.

Erich Mische, Coleman’s chief of staff, suggested that Coleman would have an easier time reaching out to conservative Democrats and independents in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Rick Santorum (R) is expected to seek a third term. “The next cycle is not a Southern cycle,” Mische said. This year, five of the GOP’s pickups come from the South.

Dole spokesman Brian Nick touted the senator’s fundraising prowess. During her eight-year tenure as head of the American Red Cross, Nick said, Dole raised $3.4 billion. In her 2002 campaign, he added, she raised $13.5 million from 86,000 donors.

Other Dole supporters have argued that the senator — a former presidential candidate and Cabinet secretary and the wife of a former Republican presidential nominee — has far more name recognition than does Coleman, helping the GOP raise more cash.

A Nov. 12 letter from Dole’s Senate backers urging support for the North Carolinian warned against left-wing interest groups. “The Democrats’ vast array of 527 committees that spent tons of millions of dollars to defeat President Bush will set their sights on taking back Congress in 2006,” the letter states.

Lott, a former Senate majority leader, called the NRSC chairmanship the toughest leadership post. “It’s the one job in leadership I wouldn’t want,” he said.