Race brews for NRSC chairmanship, as Portman weighs bid

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is mulling whether to challenge Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) to lead the GOP effort to capture the Senate — the only leadership race to emerge after Republicans suffered embarrassing losses at the polls on Tuesday. 

Moran has been lobbying colleagues for six months to replace Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

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Moran said Wednesday that he had garnered enough commitments to win the position but might face a challenge from Portman, one of Mitt Romney’s closest allies on the campaign trail this year.

A source close to Portman said he has received calls over the past few weeks urging him to challenge Moran. Portman has been flattered by the attention but has not made any decision about whether to launch a bid, the source said.

One Republican aide said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is leaning on Portman to pursue the job.

But a senior Republican aide close to the GOP leadership said that while McConnell has talked to colleagues about the NRSC chairmanship, he is not offering the job to anybody. McConnell has told Moran that he stays out of leadership races.

The Senate Republican Conference will vote on the next chairmanship of the NRSC and other leadership positions at a private meeting next week. No formal notice had been issued by press time, but the meeting is expected to take place Nov. 14.

“I have talked to all of my colleagues, present and future, and have had a sufficient number of commitments that I would be elected to chair the NRSC,” Moran said in a telephone interview.

He said he began meeting with colleagues six months ago and has had face-to-face conversations with every sitting Republican senator who will vote next week. He said he also has spoken with the three Republican senators-elect: Ted Cruz from Texas, Deb Fischer from Nebraska and Jeff Flake from Arizona.

Moran says as NRSC chairman he will work to stop Democratic interference in GOP primaries. Republicans believe Democrats spent over $1.5 million in Missouri to help Rep. Todd Akin win the GOP primary.

“We need to sit down and regroup and figure out what happened in 2012,” he said. “It’s a mistake to allow the Democratic organization to choose our candidates.”

Moran served on the executive committee of the National Republican Congressional Committee while a member of the House.

McConnell seems to want the NRSC job to go to a senator with a high profile. He discussed it with rising-star freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who mulled the offer but told McConnell it was not the right next step for him, according to a source familiar with the conversations.

Political handicappers predicted at the start of the 2012 election cycle that Republicans would win enough seats to take control of the Senate, but that dream ended in crashing disappointment when Democrats actually expanded their majority.

Conservative activists strongly criticized the Senate GOP leadership Wednesday, and one, Richard Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, called on the congressional leadership to resign.

“The battle to take over the Republican Party begins today and the failed Republican leadership should resign,” Viguerie told reporters at a press conference with other conservative activist leaders at the National Press Club.

The challenge from activists garnered little attention on Capitol Hill.

“Richard Viguerie is not someone I’ve paid attention to in 20 years,” said one GOP aide. “He’s not a guy with his finger on the pulse of the movement.”

Other conservatives blamed the entire Senate GOP caucus for the party’s poor showing Tuesday.

“The Republican caucus as a whole did not do a good job,” said Brian Darling, senior fellow for government studies at the Heritage Foundation.”

Darling said GOP leaders should have forced vulnerable Democrats such as Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) to take more tough votes on gun control, repeal of the 2010 Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage.

“They allowed Reid to control the agenda from day one to Election Day, and that proved a failing because they did not force votes on issues that would have helped them,” he said. “They did not force enough votes to give the American people a reason to vote for Republicans. You ask voters what Republicans stand for and they can’t tell you much.” 

Despite the grumbling, Senate insiders said they did not expect any major shake-ups in the chamber’s Republican leadership.

McConnell will keep his post as Senate Republican leader, and Cornyn, who chaired the NRSC over the past two election cycles, is the favorite to become Senate Republican whip. The current whip, Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), will retire at the end of the year.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, has been considering a challenge to Cornyn for the whip’s job, but Senate aides said they were not aware of any movement from his camp this week.

One source familiar with Thune’s thinking said he “hasn’t stated his intentions yet.” Thune took over the Senate GOP conference chairmanship in January and has liked the job. He did not seem to be itching to grab for another promotion in the leadership so soon after getting the conference post when Congress recessed for the election at the end of September.

If Thune stays put as Senate Republican Conference chairman, Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) is expected to be easily reelected as Senate Republican Policy Committee chairman and Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) is expected to win another stint as GOP conference vice chairman.