Dole leads GOP Senate drive

N.C. senator admits, `wind in our faces'

May 21, 2006|By JILL ZUCKMAN | JILL ZUCKMAN,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's approval ratings are at Nixonian lows, five incumbent Republican senators are fighting for their political lives, and on issue after issue - gas prices, ethics, the war in Iraq - Democrats seem to have the upper hand.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a Republican from North Carolina, the former Cabinet secretary and presidential candidate, has been chosen by her colleagues to head their efforts to keep the Senate in Republican hands against these forces, in spite of low-grade uncertainty from fellow Republicans that she can overcome the obstacles in her way.

"No question, the wind has been in our faces for many months," said Dole.

Republicans have criticized the National Republican Senatorial Committee that Dole chairs for recruiting disappointments, fundraising that has lagged behind the Democrats' and an unsuccessful effort to push Katherine Harris, the GOP candidate for Senate, out of the Florida race.

"The concerning thing is the fundraising," said John Weaver, the Republican strategist who advises Sen. John McCain of Arizona. "I don't know how you can put a positive spin on it. Numbers don't lie, like so many other things we do in this business."

According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has a 2-to-1 cash advantage over the NRSC. Democrats reported raising $56.4 million for the November election, with $32.1 million in cash on hand, compared with $50.4 million for the Republicans, who have $16.5 million cash on hand.

Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, requiring a change of six seats for Democrats to regain control. It is Dole's job to prevent that from happening, using the political committee to recruit good candidates, raise money for those candidates and provide them with strategic support.

With her impressive resume, Dole, 69, has been a star attraction campaigning for Republican candidates since she served in the Reagan administration as secretary of transportation. During her husband's 1996 run for president, she wowed voters with campaign speeches using a wireless microphone to roam around the audience, a la Oprah Winfrey. And in 1999, she briefly ran for president before dropping out for lack of funds and a weak following.

But the nervousness about her ability to fend off the Democratic onslaught is palpable among Republicans. "I'm concerned about how some things have gone," said Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, citing recruiting disappointments.

Some political analysts, consultants and fellow GOP senators say anyone with Dole's job would face vexing challenges. "This is the worst campaign political environment for Republicans that I've seen since 1982 and the Reagan mid-term [election]," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "It's just one of those things where you can't recruit candidates, raising money is hard, there's no issue agenda for guys to run on. It's a mess."

The problems facing Republican efforts to keep the Senate are broader than fundraising, Dole's colleagues said. "Money's not our problem," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "The problem is the general mood of the country, high gas prices, an unpopular war and frustration over immigration."

Since she took over the NRSC, Dole has focused on increasing the number of people who give money, involving individual senators in raising funds and targeting female executives, business owners and community leaders for donations.

In an interview, Dole touted the Republicans running for Senate and pointed to a key indicator of success - her ability to persuade 14 out of 15 incumbent senators to run for re-election - since it is far easier to win as an incumbent than a challenger.

Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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