Dole to NRSC, By a Nose

Posted November 17, 2004 at 6:41pm

After steering clear of the spotlight for almost two years, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) vaulted into the leadership Wednesday by winning her late-starting, two-month campaign to chair the National Republican Senatorial Committee by a single vote.

Winning a secret ballot of the 55 Senators who will serve in the Republican Conference for the 109th Congress, Dole comes to the job with a higher profile than any other Senator who has chaired the NRSC, having served as a Cabinet member in two administrations, headed the American Red Cross and briefly run for president.

Calling her a political “icon,” outgoing Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie called himself an “unmitigated fan” of Dole’s and touted her vast managerial experience in massive bureaucracies and other organizations.

“She is incredibly focused and she knows how to win,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie is one of a handful of seasoned operatives who are part of Dole’s political team, people who could play key roles in helping her manage the NRSC. The committee raised roughly $70 million in the 2004 cycle.

Gillespie remains chairman of the RNC until his successor — Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for Bush-Cheney ’04 — is officially ratified Jan. 18. Gillespie played no role in helping Dole with her campaign to helm the NRSC, and after leaving the RNC he plans to return to his lobbying firm, Quinn Gillespie.

But GOP strategists expect him to also return to his general strategist role with Dole, which he filled during her 2002 Senatorial campaign while also running his top lobbying firm. (In fact, as of Sept. 30, Dole’s campaign committee still owed Gillespie $45,300 for his 2002 consulting services, according to campaign filings.)

No announcements have been made about filling out the NRSC’s staff roster, but Dole’s top political aide has been Mark Stephens, who managed her 2002 campaign and continues as senior adviser to her re-election committee. His consulting firm receives $6,500 a month from her leadership political action committee, Leadership Circle.

Stephens is a potential candidate to become executive director of the NRSC, a position that oversees all day-to-day operations of the committee. A key operative in the Tar Heel State, Stephens has run campaigns for former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and served as a strategist for Sen.-elect Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in his 2004 campaign.

Dole is a proven fundraiser and made that fact a centerpiece of her leadership campaign. Her 2002 campaign raised $13.5 million, more than any other candidate in that cycle. Leadership Circle didn’t debut until the spring of 2004, about a year after most freshman Senators opened their PACs, but she still raised $577,000 this year, more than any of her fellow freshmen amassed for their PACs.

Standing at her first press conference as part of the GOP leadership team, Dole indicated she was ready to deliver the sharp attacks and counter-attacks that campaign committee chairmen must specialize in. She singled out Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) for criticism, alleging that his “obstruction” had blocked too many issues in the 108th Congress.

This came after Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered an olive branch toward Democrats, saying Republicans were “not suffering from hubris” and understood that they would have to work with the minority. Asked whether her attacks on Daschle, on his way out after losing his election, violated that bipartisan spirit, Dole simply responded, “I’m just stating the facts.”

Dole’s supporters pointed to her successful NRSC campaign, which she began about six months later than her lone opponent, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), as an example of how well she’ll run the campaign committee. “She’ll be outstanding,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

But Dole has long been dogged by criticism about her leadership style, and some GOP strategists again this week questioned whether she was someone who could make the quick, if not instantaneous, decisions in the heat of overseeing many different Senate campaigns.

Her reputation for paying attention to detail, wanting to be fully prepped for every question, has sometimes been turned against her by critics.

Gillespie said he learned early on that she could make a quick decision and stick to it, something he learned from none other than Dole’s husband, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.). Former Sen. Dole gave Gillespie a piece of advice when he took the job as outside strategist for her Senate campaign: “Say yes to Elizabeth early, it’ll save you both a lot of time.”

And Gillespie said Dole was more than ready for the hand-to-hand combat of the political talk show circuit, something that has become an unofficial duty for campaign committee chairmen in recent years. She expects to more than stand her own against her counterpart, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who will chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“I would not want to be on the other side of Elizabeth Dole in a verbal contest,” Gillespie said, noting that her two debates in 2002 against North Carolina Senate candidate Erskine Bowles (D) were successful. “He was lucky to be able to walk of the stage in the end.”

Coleman said Dole can count on him to help with the heavy load of fundraising in the next two years. “We’re at 55, we should be shooting for 60,” he said of their current number of seats.

Coleman had claimed to have at least 28 commitments on the eve of the NRSC vote, but fell one vote short. He declined to specify whether anyone had turned their backs on him after making a commitment to his bid, noting the secret ballots.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), who was whipping votes for Dole, said he doubted that the Coleman camp thought it had 28 votes locked in for certain. “I don’t think they really thought they ever had the votes,” he said.

But Sununu said both sides always knew it was a nail-biter of a race, and that the outcome came “within a vote or two” of where he expected it to be.

Coleman said he took comfort in the narrow loss in knowing how many colleagues he had lined up in his corner.

“I’m thrilled by the level of support,” he said.