Republican Senators Face Tough Choice on New NRSC Chairman

Posted November 5, 2004 at 3:08pm

As the 108th Congress returns to Washington to finish its business, Republican Senators who will serve in the next Congress are preparing to choose a new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s campaign arm. [IMGCAP(1)]

This post has become a launching pad for party leadership, and sometimes national leadership. Former NRSC Chairman Bill Frist (Tenn.) is now the Senate Majority Leader, and is likely to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2008. The current Senate Majority Whip, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, served two terms chairing the NRSC.

The outgoing NRSC chairman, Sen. George Allen (Va.), is clearly ambitious, and hopes to use his successful term at the NRSC as a launching pad for higher things. He is likely to receive a boost from GOP Senate gains this year, even though his committee was widely criticized by party insiders and observers.

Let’s be clear about what happened on Tuesday. First, voters in Republican states elected Republicans to open Senate seats. Second, Republicans gained Senate seats despite the campaigns many of their candidates ran and despite some of the NRSC’s decisions.

The NRSC’s timing decisions on spending money on campaigns was often second-guessed and hard to understand. The committee often acted as if it was being evaluated on how much money it had in the bank, rather than how it was spending its money on candidates’ behalf.

Instead of spending money early in Oklahoma and South Carolina, helping favored Republican nominees put their races away early, the NRSC sat on its cash and issued press releases about how much money it had.

But in politics, it’s all about the bottom line, not the process. In gaining four Senate seats this cycle, Allen and his committee came off smelling like roses. That will only make the NRSC chairmanship a more appealing job.

The Republicans are faced with two very different candidates for the NRSC job next cycle: Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole. Which one would make a better chairman of the committee? It depends on what Senate Republicans are looking for.

Brooklyn-born Coleman is ambitious and a hard charger. A politically savvy former Democrat and mayor of St. Paul, he would give his party a chairman who is comfortable with the nuts and bolts of campaigns and political strategy. And Coleman could go toe to toe with his Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee adversary on “Crossfire”-like TV shows.

Dole, by contrast, isn’t a campaign nut, and she isn’t the kind of shoot-from-the-hip partisan who could compete on television with someone like current Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe or “Crossfire” host Paul Begala. Those are not her strengths. Rather, she is a well-connected fundraising machine who would give the party just the face it needs — that of a smiling, likable woman.

Coleman is a dynamo of energy who knows how to work a room. Dole doesn’t have to. People come to her. The North Carolina freshman is about as close to a rock star as the Republican Senate has. She’s a celebrity, and that can be a valuable asset for an NRSC chairman.

Face it: If you are running for the Senate and bringing the NRSC chairman to your state for a fundraiser, a media event and campaign rally, it’s clear who’s likely to draw a bigger crowd, generate news coverage and raise the big bucks. It’s Dole, hands down.

Coleman has been campaigning for the NRSC job for months, and he released a list of seven supporters last month.

“I think it is likely that he will be the next chairman,” says Barry Casselman, a Minnesota-based political analyst.

But Dole, while she entered the contest after Coleman, has quietly and quickly lined up a considerable number of supporters.

Hill veterans agree party leadership contests have their own dynamics. They are rarely about ideology or geography, and hopefuls who campaign too publicly for the leadership often lose more votes than they gain.

For some Members, Dole will be the safer choice. Coleman may be interested in the post as a way into the leadership. And for at least a few of his colleagues, that means the Minnesota Senator may be competition. On the other hand, Dole, at 68 years of age, isn’t going to use the NRSC chairmanship as a stepping stone to anything.

Both hopefuls figure they have more support than their competition. But in these fights, vote counts are less than dependable.

“How many of the undecided are really undecided?” asked one head-counter. “Or are they just not telling us that they are [backing the other hopeful]?”

The chairman of the NRSC has a number of responsibilities. No. 1 is fundraising. No. 2 is everything else. Republican Senators must decide who will be able to staff the committee, raise funds, recruit candidates, deal with the media and do everything else. Neither Dole nor Coleman would be a bad choice. That makes the choice all the more difficult.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (www.rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).