GOP Senate Arm Faces Questions

Posted September 27, 2004 at 6:34pm

Five weeks from the November elections, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is facing questions from a number of GOP consultants and high-level campaign staffers about spending decisions in key races around the country.

While discontent with the Senate GOP’s campaign arm has long been simmering in some Republican circles, recent developments in open-seat races in South Carolina and Oklahoma have pushed some insiders over the edge, several party strategists said in interviews.

A key question for several of the critics is why, when the party has about a 2-to-1 money edge over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the NRSC has continued to hold its fire on television advertising.

“What are they waiting for?” asked one Republican consultant familiar with the Senate battlefield. “They have been indecisive about getting in and doing [independent expenditures] at crucial points in these campaigns.”

Other Republicans sources assert that on several occasions, Senate incumbents who are not up for re-election in 2004 have been forced to lean on the NRSC for dollars to help campaigns in their own states or neighboring states.

When asked about the decision to withhold a major spending blitz until this late in the cycle, NRSC Executive Director Jay Timmons said the committee was sticking to a long-planned strategy.

“We have invested quite heavily in a number of states since the last reporting period, and we are in a position to invest in other states and finish strong,” Timmons said.

Other Republican sources friendly to the NRSC insist that the willingness of Democratic Senators to make big donations from their personal committees — coupled with the possibility that 527s allied with the Democrats may decide to focus some of their fire on Senate races — has given committee officials reason to be wary of spending down their war chest too early.

Republicans entered this cycle with high hopes for expanding their two-seat majority, since 10 of the 19 Democratic Senators up for re-election were running in states carried by President Bush in 2000.

Those hopes were raised even higher with the retirement of five Democratic Senators in the South, a region that has become ever-friendlier to Republicans over the past decade.

No one interviewed for this article predicted that the NRSC’s strategy would cost them the majority. But several said it could be a factor in limiting what could have been a three- or four-seat gain to a pickup of just one or two seats.

Democrats, for their part, continue to believe that the majority is within reach.

The biggest disagreement over strategy between the NRSC and some Republicans is in South Carolina, where Sen. Fritz Hollings (D) is retiring after seven terms.

The DSCC has been on the air with independent expenditures since Aug. 19, a move widely credited with revitalizing the campaign of state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D), which had been floundering for several months.

As of Monday, the DSCC had spent $1.3 million for ads that attack DeMint for his support of a 23 percent national sales tax.

“With the DSCC being the only outside money in the race for two months, it has allowed our opponent to stay in the game when she otherwise would have been through,” said Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for Rep. Jim DeMint (R).

The NRSC recently reserved $1.4 million in ad time for a statewide buy set to begin on Oct. 5.

A similar situation has been playing out in the Oklahoma race between Rep. Brad Carson (D) and former Rep. Tom Coburn (R). There, the DSCC began running independent-expenditure ads just after Labor Day, hammering Coburn with $533,000 worth of ads before the NRSC has even placed its first buy.

The committee is now spending 441a(d) — or “coordinated” — dollars to fund Coburn’s ads.

In both South Carolina and Oklahoma, the two Republicans held leads in the high single digits prior to the DSCC spending. The races are now within a few points.

Currently, the NRSC is running ads in Alaska and South Dakota and has reserved time in South Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Colorado.

The biggest of those buys is in Florida, where the committee has pledged to spend roughly $3.5 million on a statewide ad blitz in the campaign’s final two weeks.

In Florida, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R) is taking on former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor (D) in the open-seat race to replace Sen. Bob Graham (D).

The NRSC has committed to $1.1 million for advertising in the final two weeks of the Colorado open-seat race and $850,000 for the same time period in support of construction company executive Tim Michels (R) against incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

After reserving more than $5 million worth of time in the North Carolina race between Rep. Richard Burr (R) and 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles, the NRSC is now on the hook for two weeks of television in the Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte and Wilmington media markets for a total cost of $646,000.

Senate Republicans are expected to buy time in several more states before the end of the cycle in hopes of pressing their cash edge.

At the end of August, the NRSC had $22.5 million on hand, compared to the DSCC’s $10.5 million.

The NRSC has already begun to funnel 441a(d) money to its top-tier campaigns over the past two weeks, which allows them to pay directly for various costs associated with the campaign, including television ads.

If both parties spend their maximum allotted coordinated dollars on each of the 10 races generally considered competitive, the bill will total $7.2 million.

Some campaigns have not been happy about the timing of the 441a(d) money, either.

“In talking with numerous consultants, they felt the NRSC misled their campaign as to what they were going to do and when” on coordinated dollars, said one senior Republican strategist.

Second-guessing the party committees is nothing new in Washington, especially on the Senate side, where there are only a handful of competitive races each cycle that attract a massive amount of attention.

The DSCC has drawn criticism from some in Georgia for their decision, so far, not to make any independent expenditures on behalf of Rep. Denise Majette (D) even as they spend heavily on behalf of others such as Tenenbaum.

Even so, several Republican sources said that there were few if any complaints aimed at the NRSC during the 2002 cycle, when the committee — led by Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist and Mitch Bainwol, now the president of the Recording Industry Association of America — reclaimed the majority.

Timmons took the criticism in stride, arguing that any spending decision made by the NRSC needs to take into consideration its impact on the playing field nationwide.

“The most important thing for the committee is that we keep our eye on all of the races in play and all of our decisions are weighed against how it impacts all of our targets,” Timmons said.