Allen’s ACC Strategy

South Fuels Republicans’ Senate Optimism

Posted November 18, 2003 at 6:31pm

Appearing sensitive about using a term that has become associated with Republicans’ efforts to reach out to conservative white voters, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said Tuesday that the committee is eschewing the phrase “Southern Strategy” when discussing how it plans to pick up seats in the Senate elections of 2004.

But in an interview with Roll Call reporters, Allen made it clear that the GOP is counting on making significant gains in the South, where Democrats must defend four open seats — five if Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) chooses to retire.

“The key battlegrounds, the key opportunities, clearly are in the South,” he said.

Allen, however, looks to the college athletic conferences where Southern teams play for inspiration — and a moniker.

“I wouldn’t describe it as a Southern Strategy,” he said. “I’d call it an ‘ACC Strategy’ and an ‘SEC Strategy’ if Breaux moves on.”

It is the South that makes Republicans most confident about retaining control of the Senate in the 109th Congress and even adding seats to its 51-48 majority. And Allen said the party’s national position has only improved in the past month, with Sen. Bob Graham’s (D-Fla.) announcement that he would retire, a Republican gubernatorial election victory in Kentucky this month strengthening Sen. Jim Bunning (R), and the decision of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) to begin campaigning aggressively.

Allen’s enthusiasm matches the optimism of Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. As first reported in Roll Call on Tuesday, Reynolds told his GOP colleagues in a memo this week that the 2003 election results “give us reason to celebrate.”

Amplifying on that boast in a meeting with reporters Tuesday, Reynolds said the 2004 election is shaping up as a “referendum on President Bush.”

Given the narrowness of the current House playing field, Reynolds predicted that if Bush received 55 percent or more of the vote in 2004, House Republicans would likely increase their current 12-seat majority.

On the other hand, “if the president is in a fight for his life, it will be hand-to-hand combat,” he added.

Reynolds repeatedly emphasized that the NRCC learned its lessons from 1996 and 1998 when much of the organization’s resources were dedicated to campaign commercials pushing a national GOP message.

“In 1996 and 1998 this shop was in the air wars,” Reynolds said. “Now we customize [campaigns] and build them from the ground up.”

Republicans lost 13 seats in those two elections, bringing them within a handful of seats of losing the majority they won in 1994.

In 2000 and 2002, the NRCC defied expectations, with a two-seat loss followed by a six-seat gain.

Reynolds dismissed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) pledge to ensure her party goes into the 2004 elections with a national message.

Pointing to the 2003 gubernatorial victory of Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.), Reynolds said that “whatever message they were trying to run on didn’t stick.”

Fletcher’s Democratic opponent attempted to tie the Congressman to the “Bush economy.” Fletcher won a 55 percent to 45 percent victory.

“She’s got to pick whatever she is going to do,” Reynolds said of Pelosi. “Maybe she will wait for a national message like in 1994 or 1974.”

He also warned that if House Democratic leaders oppose the Medicare prescription drug bill currently being debated before Congress, there could be dire ramifications for her party.

“If Nancy Pelosi and Democrats continue to practice the politics of destruction, it could lead them further down into the minority,” Reynolds said.

Kori Bernards, communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Reynolds’ comments reflect Republicans’ “complete lack of understanding of what ordinary people need.”

“Republicans have an agenda that is extreme and out of touch with ordinary Americans,” she said.

On a district-by-district basis, Reynolds expressed skepticism that Democrats could find enough competitive seats to reclaim the majority.

“For Democrats to take 12 seats, where the hell do they get them from?” Reynolds asked.

Back on the Senate battleground, Allen rejected the conventional wisdom that the Republicans’ efforts to retain control of the Senate have been hampered somewhat by recruiting failures in such GOP-tilting states as Arkansas, Nevada and North Dakota, where potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents now appear safe. He refused to concede the Nevada race, where Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D) is seeking a fourth term after winning by just 428 votes in 1998.

But Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the GOP’s inability to find top-tier candidates in several states gives the Democrats hope.

“Senator Allen’s unfortunately been known to be prone to hyperbole,” Woodhouse said. “I’m not surprised he would overstate Republican prospects in the election and understate what most analysts have agreed has been their recruiting failure.”

Woodhouse mentioned Washington state as a prime example.

No one in Washington, D.C., he said, spent more time than Allen trying to recruit Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) into the 2004 race against Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). When Dunn passed on the Senate election, Republicans turned to Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), who in the conventional wisdom is not considered as strong as Dunn.

But Allen termed Washington one of the Republicans’ two “sleeper” races, saying, “A lot of people may underestimate George Nethercutt.

“He is a quality candidate, articulate, knowledgeable,” Allen said. “He and his wife, Mary Beth, are a great team.”

Allen — as many Republicans have for months — identified the Wisconsin election as the other sleeper. Even though Republicans failed to lure Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson or Rep. Paul Ryan (R) into the 2004 race against Sen. Russ Feingold (D), Allen praised all three Republicans running.

He said auto dealer Russ Darrow is “getting good reviews.” He called businessman Tim Michels “impressive.” And he called state Sen. Bob Welch, the 1994 GOP nominee against Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), “politically savvy.”

The state Allen identified as most difficult among those that are likely to be competitive was Illinois, where Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) is retiring.

“The Land of Lincoln is not very Republican any more,” Allen lamented.

Still, he said two candidates competing in the March 16, 2004, GOP primary, former Goldman Sachs executive Jack Ryan and paper company magnate Andy McKenna, are potentially strong.

In other races, Allen said:

• The NRSC is encouraging Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez to enter the Florida Senate race, though he believes that three other candidates — state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, former Rep. Bill McCollum and state Sen. Daniel Webster — could also run strong. He refused to discuss the White House role in shaping the Florida Senate race.

• The party would not take sides in multi-candidate Republican Senate primaries in South Carolina and Georgia, where the GOP has high hopes.

• Democrats are running “third-string candidates” in such potentially competitive states as Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio and have no candidate at all so far in Democratic-leaning Iowa.

• He is still pressing former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) to enter the South Dakota Senate race against Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D). Allen is scheduled to travel to South Dakota this weekend to be the keynote speaker at a state GOP dinner, and Thune is supposed to introduce him to the crowd.

Allen said that while he does not know what Thune will decide to do, “the pitch continues.”