Cornyn Plots Aggressive Strategy

Posted February 10, 2009 at 6:35pm

After two straight election cycles in which Senate Republicans were mostly forced to play defense, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) vowed things will be different in 2010, when he expects the GOP will be able to play offense.

In an interview at NRSC headquarters, Cornyn argued that recent appointments in states such as Delaware and Illinois have opened up new opportunities for Republicans to target next year. He also explained several methods he expects to employ to change the way the NRSC operates, especially when it comes to candidate recruitment and fundraising.

“It’s a whole new dawn,” he said.

Cornyn said that as part of the effort to ensure the party gets the best possible candidates, the NRSC will consider, on a case-by-case basis, taking an active role in GOP primaries.

“If in order to help Republicans win Senate seats that means using whatever influence the committee has to see that the strongest Republican is nominated, I think that’s one of the things we will be looking at,” he said.

He lauded Democrats’ success in getting involved in primaries over the past two cycles — when Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) headed the Democrats’ campaign arm — and credited them for getting candidates that “fit their states.”

Cornyn said Republicans need to “be better at picking candidates not that meet ideological tests but rather candidates that fit their states and that can be elected as Republicans in those states.”

While hesitant to delve too deeply into early candidate recruitment efforts, Cornyn seemed optimistic about the GOP’s chances in several heavily Democratic states. The Democratic fields are somewhat in flux in Illinois and Delaware because of the ascent of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden. In Connecticut, Sen. Chris Dodd (D) may face his most difficult race in years and former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) is eyeing a bid.

Cornyn did go out of his way to praise the candidacy of former Rep. Rob Portman (R) in the open-seat race to replace retiring Sen. George Voinovich (R) in Ohio.

“I think he certainly stands head and shoulders above any other name I heard,” Cornyn said. If the Ohio GOP field were to grow, “that might be an example where we’d consider getting involved.”

Ohio is one of several states where early GOP retirement announcements have created wide-open battles for 2010. While those retirements have certainly complicated Cornyn’s job, he said they also present an opportunity for the party to come up with “new, energetic, fresh-faced candidates who are articulators of the Republican message, and I like our chances.”

One place where some Republicans insiders say they’d be more than happy to see a fresh face is in Kentucky, where Sen. Jim Bunning is facing a tough re-election. Bunning has been considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans of the 2010 cycle, and his dreary year-end fundraising numbers released last month did little to set strategists’ concerns aside. Some Republicans are privately saying that the party would have a better chance at holding the seat if Bunning were to step aside.

Bunning has repeatedly insisted that he’s running again in 2010, but Cornyn on Tuesday again made it sound as if there was still some question about the matter.

“Sen. Bunning has been through two very tough elections. I think he does understand that this is going to be another very tough election and my goal is to work with him to provide him the information he needs in order to make the best decision not only for himself, but for Republicans holding on to that seat,” Cornyn said. “I know he wants that to happen weather he runs or not. I know he’s determined to make sure it stays in Republican hands. … All I can tell you about that is it’s a work in progress and I don’t know what will happen.”

Cornyn said he has not talked to any other potential GOP candidates in Kentucky.

While candidate recruiting remains the top priority of the committee, Cornyn said the NRSC also has plenty of work to do to make sure that it doesn’t face another steep financial disadvantage compared to its Democratic counterpart.

Last cycle, the NRSC raised some $91 million compared with about $154 million raised by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Heading into 2010, Cornyn acknowledged that Democrats will probably have some advantages in terms of fundraising because they control the White House, but he said a new fundraising philosophy at the NRSC will go a long way toward helping Republicans make up the gap.

Cornyn said that he’s encouraging GOP Senators to exchange lists of low-dollar donors and that the NRSC is working to communicate better with those donors on the Internet.

A major component of Cornyn’s new strategy will be to motivate donors to contribute by giving them face time with Senators at various fundraising events.

“Primarily it’s going to be emphasizing the importance of Senators showing up and participating in events,” Cornyn said. “That’s what donors want. They want to have somebody who will listen to their concerns and maybe even ideas … and that can’t happen without greater participation among Members.”

Cornyn asked his colleagues to commit to that kind of participation at the weekly GOP policy luncheon at the NRSC on Tuesday.

Another request he made of his colleagues at the luncheon was to consider donating about $30,000 to the NRSC. It’s a significant amount but not quite the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Republicans Senators have been hit up for in the past.

Cornyn has said repeatedly this cycle that he plans to place less of an emphasis on Member transfers as a fundraising tool.

Schumer proved successful in appealing to his caucus colleagues for several million dollars in transfers during the 2006 and 2008 cycles when he headed the Democratic committee. But similar pleas from Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) to give to the NRSC fell largely on deaf ears in the 2008 cycle when he ran it. Cornyn said he would be following a different course.

By the end of the 2008 cycle, the DSCC benefited from almost $16 million in transfers from Senators’ re-election accounts and another $1.3 million from leadership political action committees. The NRSC was able to garner only about $3 million in transfers from campaign accounts and about $1 million from leadership PACs.

“We know transfers are not popular among Republican Senators,” Cornyn said on Tuesday. “We’ve tried that … and it just is a point of friction. … We’re not going to depend on it, but we will welcome it when it happens.”