Money Woes Keep GOP Worried About 2008

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., gestures while meeting reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007, to discuss a conversation he had this morning with Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke

This story was written by Jeanne Cummings.


Senate Republicans are in trouble, and last week's Democratic victories in Kentucky and Virginia suggest their challenges may be steeper than even they thought.

The day after Republican Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher was tossed out of office, one of his biggest political patrons launched ads to protect himself from the fallout.

Who was he?

No less than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The off-year elections and a steady drumbeat of negative public opinion polls indicate the poisonous mix of issues and voter discontent that wiped out Republican majorities a year ago isn't abating.

Worse still, the new minority is in a much weaker position to defend itself.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, a perennial fundraising laggard, is falling further behind its Democratic counterpart with every passing quarter.

At this point in 2005, the NRSC had raised $28.2 million, compared to the $31.5 million banked by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

According to the latest reports, the NRSC raised $23.4 million - nearly $5 million less - during the same three quarters this year.

Meanwhile, the DSCC has raised $42 million - a $10 million increase over its 2005 third-quarter total.

The cash-in-the-bank figures are painful, too.

At this point in 2005, the NRSC had $9.4 million; today it has $8.3 million. The Democrats' third-quarter cash balance in 2005 was $19 million; this cycle, it's $23 million.

Unless Republicans can pick up the pace, they face going into a hostile 2008 election with less money and more contested seats than they had last year.

Of the 11 Senate seats rated as competitive by Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, only two belong to Democrats, and neither is considered to be in dire jeopardy.

Of the remaining nine Republican seats, five are relatively safe, three are toss-ups and one - the Virginia seat being vacated by Republican Sen. John Warner - is essentially lost.

Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, a popular former governor, is running for that open Senate seat against fellow former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who dropped out of the Republican presidential contest this summer after failing to raise even $200,000 for his candidacy in his home state.

Warner is ahead in the polls, and any doubt about his cruise to the Senate was erased last week when Virginia voters threw out the state Senate Republican majority.

The anti-GOP sentiment that has settled into the Old Dominion has now moved the once reliably Republican state into the presidential purple column.

The good news for Republicans is that most of their incumbents facing tough reelections are stockpiling cash.

McConnell had $7 million in the bank on Sept. 30. Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman had $5 million. New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu had banked nearly $3 million.

But public opinion polls are cutting against them, with challengers leading in some of these states and incumbents holding tenuous leads in others.

And some Democratic challengers are keeping pace. Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) has $3 million in the bank; her Democratic challenger, Rep. Tom Allen, has $2 million. This is Collins' first serious challenge, and the timing could be fatal.

A moderate from a small state where the war in Iraq and President Bush are highly unpopular, her profile mirrors that of former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), who lost his seat last year. 

"If they can wrap Bush around Chafee's neck, why not Collins?" asks Duffy.

Finally, changing campaign tactics could force some Republicans to burn through their cash more quickly this cycle, making them vulnerable to the kind of last-minute strategic spending by DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that finished off some of their colleagues in the final days or weeks of the 2006 campaign.

The provocateur at this early stage isn't Schumer.

It's MoveOn.org, a liberal online organization which softened up Republican incumbents for the Democrats in 2006 by running early television attack ads.

Most Republicans ignored the commercials and held their cash.

But the attacks took their toll and the MoveOn campaign is credited with expanding the Democratic wins and forcing some razor-thin Republican victories.

Ohio Rep. Deborah Pryce, a 2006 target who narrowly escaped defeat, opted to resign this year rather than undergo another bloody reelection.

This cycle, MoveOn is already at work.

In May, it ran ads critical of the pro-Iraq-war positioning of Republican Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon and Sununu of New Hampshire, both Democratic targets. McConnell's war position came under fire in MoveOn ads in September and October of 2007.

Those commercials were largely aimed at pushing Republicans to change their votes on war-ending resolutions on Capitol Hill.

MoveOn officials said that next year they will launch an ad campaign meant to influence voters in the ballot booth on Election Day.

That means McConnell can expect more incoming MoveOn attack ads, and that helps explain why he's moving aggressively to shore up his reelection.

A veteran of more than 20 years in the Senate, McConnell wasn't supposed to be on the list of endangered Republicans.

But the Bluegrass backlash against his ally Fletcher last week sent up warning flares.

To be sure, Fletcher's campaign was beset with charges of political cronyism in the State Capitol.

But a generally anti-Republican mood and unhappiness with Bush added fuel to the voter revolt.

McConnell appeared in ads for Fletcher and campaigned for him, but the governor still lost his reelection by nearly 20 percentage points.

Within days, McConnell put up a 60-second ad reminding Kentuckians of his service and his influence as leader of the Republican caucus.

Democrats are considering their own commercials that would try to turn those assets into liabilities by linking McConnell not just to Fletcher but to President Bush and the war policy that the minority leader has defended on Capitol Hill.

The pre-emptive move by McConnell may or may not work. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) ran through her campaign cash responding to MoveOn's ads early in the 2006 election.

She lost her seat anyway.

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