Saturday, December 30, 2006

Entering the post-primary presidential campaign of 2004, political strategists, commentators and journalists believed that if any single state would represent the difference between victory and defeat in the general election, Ohio would be that state. As it happened, that universally accepted conventional wisdom proved to be absolutely correct. Thus, today, more than two years later, strategists from both parties are still scratching their heads over John Kerry’s failure to legally transfer to Ohio, which he lost 51-49, a large chunk of the $12.4 million that remained in his pre-convention campaign account at the end of 2004.

In the same vein as Mr. Kerry’s misjudgment, dozens of Republican senators will be returning to Washington next week as members of the minority party. They know full well that their failure to help finance many Republican senators’ campaigns was a major factor in the electoral debacle that has cost their party every single committee and subcommittee chairmanship. More than 50 days after Democrats defeated six Republican incumbents to capture a de facto 51-49 majority in the Senate, it makes no more sense now than it did before the election, when numerous Republican senators ignored calls to transfer a portion of their own bulging war chests to a handful of pivotal states.

Just as everyone knew that Ohio would be the decisive battleground state for the 2004 presidential election, we all knew which states were going to make the difference in determining which party would control the Senate in the incoming 110th Congress. For months everybody knew that November’s tight races would include: Missouri, where Sen. Jim Talent, who narrowly defeated an incumbent in a special election four years ago, had a real fight on his hands; Rhode Island, where the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) held their collective noses and strongly backed liberal incumbent Lincoln Chafee over a bona fide conservative in the summer primary because they believed (rightly) that Mr. Chafee would have a much better chance in the general election; and Tennessee, where Majority Leader Bill Frist was retiring. Several weeks before Election Day, it also became clear that Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen was in political danger and that Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns had erased the large lead that his Democratic opponent had built earlier.

Those were the five closest races on credible political scorecards. Shortly before Election Day, the consensus view was that the races in Missouri, Virginia and Montana were all incredibly tight. Republican incumbents held all three seats. In the end, Mr. Talent lost in Missouri by fewer than 50,000 votes among the more than two million cast (49.6 percent to 47.3 percent); Mr. Allen lost in Virginia by fewer than 10,000 votes among the nearly 2.5 million cast (49.6-49.2); and Mr. Burns lost by fewer than 3,000 votes among the nearly 400,000 cast (49.1-48.4).

For the record:

Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, who will lose his chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee when he becomes the panel’s ranking minority member in January, gave only $15,000 to the NRSC. Mr. Shelby, who last won re-election with 68 percent of the vote against an opponent who spent less than $5,000, has $11.6 million in his war chest for his next re-election campaign… in 2010.

Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison won her 2006 election (62-36) and finished her campaign with $7.3 million in the bank. All she gave the NRSC was a $115,000 donation. Fellow Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who had $2.8 million in the bank on Sept. 30 in preparation for his likely cakewalk in 2008, gave the NRSC $50,000 in 2006.

Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who used to chair the Judiciary Committee, won re-election this year (62-31), finishing his campaign with more than $2.5 million in the bank. That’s more than 12 times the $200,000 he gave the NRSC.

Richard Lugar, who would have remained chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for the 110th Congress if Republicans had retained their majority, won his sixth term this year by an 87-13 margin against an opponent who spent virtually nothing. Alas, Mr. Lugar will return as ranking minority member of the foreign-affairs panel, which will be chaired by Democratic Sen. Joe Biden. Incoming Chairman Biden gave the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) $200,000, 33 percent more than the sum given to the NRSC by incoming ranking minority member Lugar, who finished his campaign with $2.1 million in the bank.

Iowa Republican Charles Grassley will lose his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee to Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. Mr. Grassley, who faces re-election in 2010, had $2 million in the bank on Sept. 30, which was 10 times the $200,000 he gave to the NRSC.

Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, a first-term senator who had already climbed the ladder to the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, gave the NRSC $120,000 this year. That’s less than 6 percent of the more than $2 million that Sen. Chambliss had in the bank on Sept. 30. He will seek re-election in 2008 as ranking minority member of the Agriculture Committee. Fellow Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who won his first term in 2004 by 18 percentage points (58-40), gave the NRSC $25,000 in 2006, which was less than 2 percent of the $1.3 million he had in the bank on Sept. 30.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the 51-year-old first-term senator from South Carolina who probably has a safe seat (he replaced Strom Thurmond), is building seniority on the Armed Services, Judiciary and Budget committees, where he will serve as a minority member in the 110th Congress. With nearly $2.5 million in the bank as of Sept. 30, Mr. Graham gave the NRSC only $50,000.

Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott, the incoming minority whip, easily won his 2006 election (64-35). He finished the campaign with $1.5 million in the bank, which was 15 times the $100,000 he contributed to the NRSC. (Cheers to fellow Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the incoming ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee who did more than his fair share by donating $225,000 to the NRSC this year. That amount represented a huge portion of his cash on hand in 2006, which totaled a mere $350,000 on Sept. 30.)

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, was the only Republican senator who gave the NRSC at least $1 million. By contrast, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Richard Durbin of Illinois each gave the DSCC $1 million as of Oct. 18. And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York gave the DSCC $2.1 million. Altogether, through Oct. 18, Democratic senators transferred $10.2 million to the DSCC from their own campaign committees, according to a tally by the Federal Election Commission. Republican senators gave only $4 million to the NRSC.

On the margin, the $6 million difference between what Democratic senators gave their party’s national senatorial campaign committee and what Republicans gave to theirs may very well have meant the difference in producing the Democrats’ narrow 51-49 majority in the 110th Congress. An extra $6 million spent by the Republicans in Virginia, Missouri and Montana during the final weeks may well have generated a narrow Republican majority in the Senate (and 100 percent of the committee and subcommittee chairmanships). As Republican senators commiserate among themselves over their minority status, many of them should take a moment to look in the mirror. There they will find a big reason for their dilemma. And if Republican senators want to find out if the political misfortunes they have caused themselves will dissipate after a couple of years, they can ask John Kerry how he feels today after squandering his 2004 opportunity.

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