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Ensign Seeks Funding Edge

Operating against the backdrop of what will be the most expensive presidential campaign in history, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) wants to dramatically increase contributions from his fellow GOP Senators — and to match the fundraising record set in the previous cycle by his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

Ensign, who took over the committee in January, laid out his plans for recapturing the Senate during a closed-door meeting of Republican Senators on Tuesday.

The Nevada Republican has set a lofty benchmark to raise at least $119 million over the next two years, the amount Schumer collected as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006.

“We’ve got to keep pace with them,” said one knowledgeable Republican aide. “It’s all about out-Schumering Schumer.”

Ensign has set up a multitiered contribution standard for his colleagues, ranging from $3 million for the top Senate GOP leaders to a bottom rung of $750,000 for the rank and file.

Ranking members will be asked to shell out $1.25 million to $1.75 million over the cycle, depending on the committee.

In a brief interview Wednesday, Ensign acknowledged the aggressiveness of his plan, given the hurdles it faces in a competitive presidential fundraising cycle and against a powerful DSCC still led by Schumer.

Ensign must defend 21 GOP-held seats this cycle and must help the party retake at least two seats to win control of the Senate in the 111th Congress. He also must get his fundraising operation up and running earlier than ever.

“We have to think bigger, much, much bigger than ever before,” Ensign said. “Schumer set the bar much higher. We didn’t compete well enough last time.”

The NRSC raised $88 million in the previous cycle, $31 million less than the DSCC, and struggled to encourage Republican Senators to transfer money from their own campaign accounts to aid the committee.

Meanwhile, Schumer had great success getting millions from his fellow Democrats.

Ensign wouldn’t outline specifics of his new strategy Wednesday, but he acknowledged it “entails all Senators being involved. I have laid out the challenges. The question is, ‘Are we hungry?’

“We are going to find out whether our colleagues are hungry enough to put in the effort to get in the majority.”

Sources familiar with Ensign’s plans say the Nevada Republican has reviewed the Democrats’ 2006 strategy in detail, with plans to expand traditional GOP fundraising targets to places where the new majority has had its success. That includes tapping into new donor markets, regions of the country and individual states, they said.

Ensign also is putting in place new incentives for Senators to raise money for the NRSC and for their colleagues.

In particular, the Nevada Republican is working to expand the NRSC’s donor groups and promote the heavy use of joint fundraising by Senators. The latter seeks to encourage Senators — sometimes reluctant to simply transfer money directly to the NRSC — to hold events or raise money on behalf of themselves as well as another Senator, or for the committee.

“He is creating some new initiatives that will be helpful,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “It’s about getting people to participate more than ever before.”

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