Sunday, March 25, 2007

Sen. John Ensign, the Republican senatorial campaign committee chairman, thinks the odds in next year’s Senate races are running against the GOP, which he says forgot what it stood for and was “caught off-guard” by the Democrats in the last year’s elections.

But in an unusually critical assessment of his party’s political blunders and failures in the last election cycle, the Nevada lawmaker said, “We’re not off-guard anymore, and we are busting our rear ends over here now” — erasing the committee’s $1.3 million deficit with a more aggressive fundraising operation and working closely with White House political strategist Karl Rove on candidate recruitment and a campaign strategy to block further Democratic gains in the closely divided Senate.

“We meet with Karl Rove at the White House regularly. I think Karl is one of the most brilliant political minds in the country. To not use his political advice would be foolish. I take advantage of that. When we think he would be helpful, we bring him in on recruitment or on anything,” he said.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times at his National Republican Senatorial Committee offices, Mr. Ensign acknowledged that his party faces a steep, uphill climb in next year’s Senate elections when 21 Republican seats will be up for grabs, compared with 12 for the Democrats.

“The odds are that we are going to have more risks than they will, and it turns out that we do have more risks,” he said.

He singled out five Republican seats that are in danger in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon and New Hampshire, compared with two vulnerable Democratic incumbents in South Dakota and Louisiana and long-shot possibilities in Iowa and Montana.

Since taking the leadership post, he said he has completely “cleaned the place out” from top to bottom, cutting the NRSC’s bureaucracy, hiring a new, more experienced team of fundraisers, replacing its outdated computer system, and demanding that senators become more involved in an expanded fundraising operation, candidate recruitment and political outreach.

“We’ve torn this place apart from a business standpoint, looked for any waste and bureaucratic inefficiencies, and found a bunch of them. That changed a lot of the ways we are doing things around here. You have to think outside the box,” he said.

Mr. Ensign declined to criticize his predecessor in the job, North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who had fundraising problems and candidate troubles during her chairmanship — saying last year’s election was the result of “circumstances out of Elizabeth Dole’s control.”

“I’m not going to go back and analyze what she did right or wrong,” he responded, adding that Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer’s fundraising prowess — outraising the NRSC by $31 million — “took it to a new level and kind of caught everybody off-guard.”

If there was any blame for what happened last year when Republicans lost six seats and political control of the Senate, it rested largely with his own party, he said.

“I’ll criticize Republicans. I think Republicans have lost their way in that we worried about holding power instead of why we were in power,” he said.

“In 1994, I was elected as part of the Republican revolution that came in for a reason. Fiscal responsibility meant something. What happened over the years is that maintaining our committee chairmanships, maintaining our majority, figuring out how to get re-elected, became more important than why you were in control in the first place,” he said.

“We were elected to govern as Republicans, and we lost our way and the voters saw little difference between us and the Democrats. We need to get the heart and soul back in our party,” he said.

Mr. Ensign said that one of the first things he did coming into the job was to “put together lessons learned from the last campaign, from the people who had won and who lost. Those sessions were incredibly valuable” in charting a new campaign strategy, he said.

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