GOP Senate Committee Out of All Open Races

“I’m disappointed,” former Sen. Bill Armstrong (R.-Colo.) told me earlier last week, after reading press reports that the National Republican Senatorial Committee had pulled its television spots on behalf of Colorado’s Republican U.S. Senate nominee Bob Schaffer.  “And I think they’re making a mistake.  You couldn’t find a finer candidate than Bob and I still believe he can win.”

The words of Armstrong, U.S. Senator from the Centennial State from 1978-90 and still one of its most revered conservatives, sounded hauntingly familiar.  He was expressing the same doubts about the NRSC as other conservatives were about the National Republican Congressional Committee a week earlier when it began to pull out of certain U.S. House races — why were they doing so at this late date, and, if financial constraints forced them to cut back on races, why did the GOP campaign panels telegraph their “exit strategies?”

And, after the NRCC’s exodus from the races of such conservative swashbucklers as  Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Tom Feeney (Fla.), the inevitable outcry over the NRSC’s latest move in Colorado was a question: why did this happened to someone like Schaffer, one of the premier conservatives during his stint in the House from 1998-2002?

“We were no longer on TV in Colorado this week, following our polling,” NRSC Executive Director Scott Bensing told me, confirming the reports about his committee’s pull-out from the state.  “We made the decision after two weeks of tracking polls.”

Bensing told me his committee had also pulled out of the four other states in which Republican senators were retiring and there were open seats:  Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Virginia.  (In Idaho and Nebraska, Republican nominees are expected to have little difficulty in succeeding outgoing Sens. Larry Craig and Chuck Hagel respectively; in New Mexico and Virginia, GOP nominees are badly trailing their Democratic opponents in races for the seats of Sens. Pete Domenici and John Warner).

“We’re not on TV in any of them,” said Bensing.

Although a case can be made that NRSC resources were unnecessary in the first two states and useless in the latter, the Colorado exit was somewhat surprising in that Schaffer was always locked in a relatively close contest with far-left Democratic Rep. Mark Udall.  

“It was most painful for [Nevada] Sen. [and NRSC Chairman John] Ensign,” said Bensing, recalling how Ensign and Schaffer were close friends while House Members in the 1990s.  He said that Ensign personally called Schaffer to tell him of the regrettable news.

Why the NRSC had withdrawn its support from Schaffer and other non-incumbents, Bensing explained, is that “we’re looking to protect other seats” — in other words, to help save embattled incumbent senators such as Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), and John Sununu (N.H.).  

The IE Team

As it was with the NRCC, the decisions on where to go and where not to go are not made by Ensign, Bensing or the NRSC staff but by an independent team of political consultants.  In Bensing’s words, “This is the worst system one could design.”  He was echoing the conclusion of NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.), who simply called the end product of legislation co-authored by John McCain and signed by George W. Bush “stupid.”

In explaining the convoluted system of allocating resources he so hates, Cole would not tell me who was on the NRCC’s IE (for Independent Expenditure) Team, which operates outside the committee offices and with which the chairman has no contact.  He explained that I probably knew most of them, that they were political consultants, but that he would not divulge their names until after the election because he did not want to subject them to harassment.
What Cole did not say is that Washington political consultants bask in the glory of their candidates’ victories long after the election.  These firms do not want to risk having losing campaigns in their past performance portfolios.
Bensing’s response was different.  When I asked him who his IE team was, he freely volunteered that “[w]e have 35 different teams for each of the races.  There is some overlapping.  I haven’t seen them in about six months.  For Colorado, the team was [pollster] Glen Bolger and [media consultant] David Weeks.”  

The NRSC operating head had no problem divulging who made some very critical decisions and did not seem concerned that irate readers of HUMAN EVENTS might call them.

So, Chairman Cole, I have to ask, who’s making your decisions?

Closest Since Carr

As I tried to learn why the NRSC had pulled out on Colorado, I heard from Schaffer and from State GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams that momentum was indeed going the Republicans’ way.  chaffer’s own polls showed Udall’s lead statewide was down to a tight 46 percent to 43 percent advantage and that the resultant talk from the two candidates’ debate on Channel 4 (Denver) Thursday night was clearly working to Schaffer’s advantage.

“In ’02, [Republican Sen.] Wayne Allard was down in polls by 10 percent Sunday and won by 5 percent on Tuesday,” recalled Wadhams, “We can win this.”

Many old Colorado hands believe that the Schaffer-Udall race will be the closest in the state since 1942.  That was when Republican Gov. Ralph Carr took on his arch-rival, Democratic Sen. Edwin B. “Big Ed” Johnson, and, in results that took more than a week to count, Carr lost to Johnson by about one vote per precinct.

Republicans swept about everything else in Colorado that year.  But Carr lost, historians say, in large part because of his stand opposing internment for Japanese-Americans during World War II and inviting them to come to his state to avoid internment elsewhere.  

Remote now, Carr is the subject of a new biography entitled The Principled Politician.  Recalling Schaffer’s unrelenting commitment to conservatism (he followed his own decision to step down after three terms in the House despite strong evidence he would have been re-elected handily), one has to wonder if conservatives will rally enough to this principled politician to elect him.  We’ll know on Tuesday.