Senate 2008 Guru: Following the Races

Keeping a close eye on developments in the 2008 U.S. Senate races

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Is John Ensign a More Ineffective NRSC Chair than Liddy Dole Was?

Elizabeth Dole's tenure as Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee was regarded as a complete flop. Democrats out-raised her and out-recruited her, and the result was a six seat net gain for Democrats and a reclaiming of the majority status in the U.S. Senate.

As Dole's ignominious tenure as Chair was coming to an end, it became clear that no Republican Senator wanted to pick up where Dole was leaving off. South Dakota Republican John Thune was the top choice to take over, with Missouri Republican Jim Talent the second choice, if Talent survived his 2006 challenge from Democrat Claire McCaskill. Thune turned down entreaties to take the NRSC reins; and Talent, of course, lost his 2006 race.

Further, several other Republican Senators indicated that they were not interested in becoming NRSC Chair, including South Carolina's Jim DeMint, Louisiana's David Vitter (Can you imagine how much more explosive Vitter's prostitution scandal would have been if he was also NRSC Chair when the story broke?), North Carolina's Richard Burr, Florida's Mel Martinez (who went on to take a lead role with the Republican National Committee), and, at first, Nevada's John Ensign.

But, Ensign eventually reconsidered and took the role. Just to drive home the degree to which no Republican Senator wanted to be NRSC Chair, consider Ensign's comment when making his case for why he deserved the seat on the Senate Finance Committee that opened up due to the death of Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas more than Wyoming's other Senator, Mike Enzi, who had more seniority than Ensign:

I’ve obviously done a lot to help my colleagues by taking [that] job when nobody else wanted it, and I think folks should be rewarded for extra work.
When Ensign took the role, Republican optimists suggested that, even though it was a job that nobody wanted, Ensign would, at the very least, excel as a Party fundraiser, given his connections to Las Vegas money and wealthy real estate developers - a silver lining that does not seem to have substantially materialized. It appears that Ensign's heart has not been fully in the NRSC Chairmanship, to say the least. But, beyond that, I raise the question: "Is John Ensign an even more ineffective NRSC Chair than Elizabeth Dole was?"

How can we determine that? Moreover, how can we determine that at this point in the current election cycle? There are two primary functions that the NRSC serves: 1) to raise money for Republican Senate candidates; and, 2) to recruit Republican Senate candidates. So, let's measure by those two metrics.


Since we only have the first two quarters of Ensign's Chairmanship of the NRSC to compare with Dole's tenure, let's compare the first six months of 2007 to the first six months of 2005. But, to give additional perspective, let's compare the NRSC's first half of 2005 and first half of 2007 with the DSCC's comparable time periods and measure the relative differences.

NRSC Total RaisedDSCC Total RaisedDSCC Lead% DSCC Outraised NRSC
Jan-Jun 2005$20.9 million$22.7 million$1.8 million8.6%
Jan-Jun 2007$15.7 million$31.2 million$15.5 million98.7%
Difference-$5.2 million$8.5 million
% Difference-24.9%37.4%

The difference in percent by which the DSCC outraised the NRSC during the two timeframes is quite pronounced. Chuck Schumer only outraised Dole by less than 9% between January and June 2005. However, Schumer has outraised Ensign by about 100% during the first six months of 2007. But the Democrats are operating in this cycle with a Senate majority while Dole enjoyed majority status during her tenure, you might contend. To that, I'd point to the drop-off between Dole's first six months and Ensign's first six months, roughly one-quarter, a massive drop-off. While corporate donors and PACs follow the power (i.e. the majority status), they also hedge their bets, especially when it comes to supporting the more corporate-friendly and regulatory-averse Republican Party. While it is understandable that Democrats' fundraising advantage would increase, Ensign should have been able to do a better job of at least maintaining the donors the NRSC had in 2005, to at least get those previous donors to repeat-contribute (or get Republican Senators to contribute more, an area in which Dole notably failed). Ensign did make a ham-handed effort to beseech the RNC (during a Presidential election cycle, no less - something typically not done) to put money toward the 2008 Senate races, recognizing the dire straits into which he was leading the NRSC, but that effort proved fruitless.

While Ensign's inability to keep pace with Dole's 2005 numbers indicates a demoralized Republican base following their 2006 losses, it also further contributes to the ongoing demoralizing of the Republican base moving forward. Ensign's failure to keep pace not with the DSCC but simply with Dole's 2005 numbers (i.e. get previous donors to give again) suggests that, on the fundraising front, Ensign can indeed be considered a more ineffective NRSC Chair than Dole.


We are past the midpoint of August. Certainly there is more time in the cycle to recruit candidates to run credible campaigns. Nevertheless, by this point in the cycle, we should have a very good idea of how races are shaping up. Let's compare Republican recruiting by mid-August of 2005 versus mid-August of 2007, both in open races due to retirement and in races where Republican challengers are opposing Democratic incumbents.

For the 2006 cycle, Senate retirements included Bill Frist of Tennessee, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, and Jim Jeffords of Vermont. While only going on to win one out of these four races (retaining Tennessee for the GOP), Republicans did a very strong job for the most part in lining up top-tier challengers. Tennessee saw a competitive GOP Senate primary, the winner of which, Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, went on to defeat Congressman Harold Ford Jr. in a closely-contested battle. Meanwhile, the NRSC did get their top-choice recruits in Minnesota and Maryland with Rep. Mark Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, respectively, despite their eventual general election losses.

For the 2008 cycle, there is, so far, only one retirement, that of Colorado's Wayne Allard. Did Republicans get their top-choice recruit to run for the open seat? No. The Republican nominee is shaping up to be far-right conservative former Rep. Bob Schaffer in an uncontested battle, that is, after first choice and less-far-right former Rep. Scott McInnis backed out of the race in March.

While there may be more chances for the NRSC to prove itself in open seat recruiting in the months ahead in states like Virginia, Nebraska, and Idaho (and possibly even Mississippi, Alaska and New Mexico), so far, Dole's NRSC is trumping Ensign's NRSC in open seat recruiting.

Well, let's look at how well the NRSC recruited challengers to Democratic incumbents in 2005 compared to 2007. Looking at the list of candidates who had filed by mid-August 2005, the top three most impressive recruits to challenge Democratic incumbents appear to be:

1) Ameritrade CEO Pete Ricketts (Nebraska)
2) Safeco CEO and former Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Slade Gorton Mike McGavick (Washington)
3) State Senator and gubernatorial son Tom Kean Jr. (New Jersey)

Though none of the three went on to win their races, by most measures it is an impressive list of recruits that could provide their states' respective Democratic incumbents with competitive races. Now, let's list the top three most impressive (or at least "notable") recruits to step forward to challenge Democratic incumbents in this election cycle so far:

1) Disgraced state representative Mike Lange (Montana)
2) Extremist state representative Joel Dykstra (South Dakota)
3) Businesswoman Anne Evans Estabrook, who is "impressive" primarily for her ability to self-fund a campaign (New Jersey)

If you don't care for the three challengers selected to represent the current election cycle, perhaps you'd prefer Congressional loser Jeffrey Beattie in Massachusetts or issue-garbling businessman Steve Rathje in Iowa. I think it's safe to say that, from a resume standpoint, the 2006-cycle Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents blow the doors off of the current cycle's crop of Republican challengers.


Elizabeth DoleJohn Ensign
Raw FundraisingX
Fundraising vs. DSCCX
Open Seat RecruitingX
Recruiting vs. Dem IncumbentsX

Believe it or not, as failed as Elizabeth Dole's tenure as NRSC Chair was, as far as the first two quarters of the cycle are concerned, John Ensign is proving to be categorically more ineffective than Elizabeth Dole was as NRSC Chair by every single measure. With more than fourteen months until Election Day 2008, indeed much can happen. But John Ensign has unquestionably had a lousy start and is amid an equally lousy middle.


Blogger The Sleep said...

This was a great post. It actually kind of made me feel better about the Democrats failure to do a better job targetting Ensign last cycle. In a year like 2006 that could have been a winnable seat. But maybe that loss will ultimately turn a profit, as it were, by leading to more pick-ups in 2008 than would have happened if someone more competent than Ensign had been strong-armed into taking the job.

11:06 AM, August 22, 2007  
Blogger VA Blogger said...

You serious, Clarke?

1:07 PM, August 22, 2007  

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