GOP turns anger on campaign committee
By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent
Sat Dec 23, 10:43 PM ET
WASHINGTON - Narrowly defeated in his bid for a fourth
term, Montana Sen. Conrad Burns (news, bio, voting
record) turned his anger on the National Republican
Senatorial Committee and commercials it had run months
before the election.
"The ads hurt me more than they helped. I wouldn't
have spent the money," he said, his comments
characteristic of the season of second-guessing now
unfolding among Republicans.
President Bush's low approval ratings, the unpopular
war on Iraq, voter concern about corruption and
Democratic fundraising all figured in the GOP loss of
Senate control in last month's elections. But among
Republicans, long-hidden tensions are spilling into
view, with numerous critics venting their anger at the
GOP Senate campaign committee headed by North Carolina
Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
In recent interviews, officials said Senate Majority
Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., as well as Ken Mehlman,
the party chairman, set up outside checks on the
committee at critical points in the campaign.
As early as last summer, Mehlman signaled he lacked
full confidence in Dole's committee. In an
unprecedented move, he set up an independent entity to
control more than $12 million that the
Republican National Committee spent for television
advertising in Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri.
Aides at both party committees insisted at the time
the decision was a joint one. But Mehlman privately
told associates he was frustrated with the Senate
campaign committee. His actions contrasted sharply
with the battle for control of the House, where the
RNC contributed funds to an existing campaign
organization rather than create its own.
Frist also wanted an outside check. In an unusual
move, he hired a polling firm, The Winston Group,
shortly before Labor Day to conduct surveys in six
Based on the results, officials said Frist stepped in
to help overhaul Bob Corker's struggling campaign in
his home state of Tennessee. Corker ended up beating
Democrat Harold Ford Jr. Frist also pushed for a
resumption of party-paid advertising in Montana and
questioned plans for a multimillion-dollar investment
in New Jersey.
Final fundraising figures show Dole's committee raised
$30 million less than the Democratic counterpart
headed by Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting
record) of New York. Given the disparity, several
Republican strategists questioned the decision to
spend more than $4 million last fall in New Jersey and
$800,000 in Michigan in an unsuccessful attempt to
find a weak spot in the Democratic lineup. Democrats
won both races by relatively comfortable margins.
At the same time, more than a dozen party officials
and strategists criticized the steps the committee
took or did not take in Montana and Virginia in
the campaign's final weeks.
Burns and Sen. George Allen (news, bio, voting record)
lost exceedingly close races the margin of defeat a
fraction of a percentage point. A victory in either
one would have left the Senate tied at 50-50, giving
Republicans control on Vice President Cheney's ability
to break tie votes.
Two more weeks of ads in Montana might have made a
difference, said one of many Republicans who expressed
anger that Dole's committee aired no television
advertisements in Burns' behalf for between Labor Day
In Virginia, Allen and the Senate campaign committee
combined were outspent on television advertising in
each of the last five weeks by challenger Jim Webb and
the Democratic campaign committee, according to
internal GOP figures. The gap exceeded $700,000 in the
final seven days.
Numerous Republicans also have displayed anger at Bush
for the party's election losses, in particular his
decision to wait until after the election to replace
Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.
"If Rumsfeld had been out, you bet it would have made
a difference," said Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio,
voting record), R-Pa., who was not on the ballot but
lost some of his power nonetheless. "I'd still be
chairman of the Judiciary Committee."
The prospect of presidential visits sparked debate
At one point, officials said, White House aides wanted
Bush to make a late-campaign trip to Missouri. NRSC
strategists were opposed, fearing the impact of his
low approval ratings. Ultimately, Sen. Jim Talent
(news, bio, voting record)'s campaign aides decided
the president should go to strongly Republican areas,
but not Kansas City or St. Louis, where surveys showed
the president was particularly unpopular.
Some Republicans, including at the Senate campaign
committee, complain that the White House and the RNC
were urging candidates to use the fight against
terrorism as a campaign issue, but offered no advice
on combating voter anger on the war in Iraq an issue
that one official referred to as the "800-pound
elephant in the room."
Also, NRSC officials said the White House and RNC had
recommended the late-campaign investment in new Jersey
None of the NRSC's critics agreed to place their views
on the record. All spoke on condition of anonymity,
saying they did not want to contribute to intraparty
Dole is recovering from hip replacement surgery and
was not available to comment. But Mehlman and others
stepped forward to defend her tenure.
"I think Senator Dole did a fine job under extremely
difficult conditions, probably the toughest election
environment for Republicans since 1974," said Sen.
Mitch McConnell (news, bio, voting record) of
Kentucky, the incoming Senate GOP leader.
Mark Stephens, the committee's executive director,
strongly defended its work. He said it was the only
GOP entity to increase fundraising from 2004, and that
Burns and Allen both of whom were plagued by
self-inflicted political wounds probably would have
lost by larger margins without its support.
Without the committee's efforts, he said, "I think it
could have been a lot worse than 49 seats," pointing
to Republican victories in Tennessee and Arizona.
But in the current postelection environment, nothing
Numerous Republicans expressed anger that a top aide
at the Senate campaign committee, political director
Blaise Hazelwood, was allowed to devote some of her
time to a business she owns.
Hazelwood declined comment, but Stephens defended the
arrangement. "At no time did anybody else's business
interfere with their work here," he said, adding he
would have stepped if had it been otherwise.
Burns, a three-term senator who was under constant
attack for ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff,
and the NRSC aired no television commercials in
September or October after committee aides concluded
he appeared hopelessly behind. That left Burns to face
double-barreled televised attacks from his rival, Jon
Tester, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign
Committee, which spent $1.4 million over the same
"You'd turn on the television at night and they'd
typically have ... three ads whacking Conrad and then
we'd have one," said one Republican.
"The campaign didn't merit" earlier advertising,
countered Stephens. He said polling showed Burns not
only trailing his rival but also viewed unfavorably by
many more voters than regarded him favorably.
In a similar vein, campaign officials said the GOP
senatorial committee was off the air for two weeks in
Missouri in early September, leaving Talent without
protection as he faced attacks from Democratic
challenger Claire McCaskill and the Democrats' Senate
Unlike in Montana or Missouri, the NRSC had budgeted
no money for Virginia, where Allen initially appeared
to face little threat. After a mistake-plagued
campaign, though, the first-term senator had burned
through his sizable campaign treasury by fall.
"I put $5 million into that race in October," said
Stephens, adding that the effort had helped Allen
recover lost ground in the race.
"There were a lot of factors that contributed to
Allen's loss. It wouldn't be fair to blame it on the
senatorial committee," said Ed Gillespie, a senior
strategist for the campaign and Mehlman's predecessor
as RNC chairman.
In an ironic campaign postscript, some party officials
and outside strategists expressed anger in interviews
that Dole did not borrow more heavily in October in
hopes of preserving the GOP majority. The committee
recently reported debts of $1.1 million.
But several Republicans said McConnell and Sen. John
Ensign (news, bio, voting record) of Nevada the
incoming Senate GOP leader and Dole's successor,
respectively made clear they wanted as little
postelection debt as possible.
Republicans face a difficult political environment
heading into 2008 and they did not want to begin in a