Sen. John Ensign admits he didn’t quite know what he was getting into when he signed on to head the Republican effort to win U.S. Senate races in 2008.
“It is a much bigger job than I think a lot of people realized,” the Nevada Republican said last week of leading the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “There is no question it is a huge job raising $120 million.”
The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, reported last week the NRSC is off to a slow start, raising half as much money as its Democratic counterpart and failing so far to recruit marquee candidates in battleground states like Louisiana, South Dakota and Montana.
The lag is causing some Republicans to fear a looming replay of the 2006 elections, when the GOP lost six Senate seats and the party’s campaign organization got blamed, the newspaper reported.
Ensign called for patience, saying he believes changes made when he took over as committee chairman in January will pay off.
Ensign is putting more emphasis on online fundraising and communications; he has consolidated research staff, built an in-house television studio, reduced staffing and payroll and created new fundraising streams, according to NRSC accounts.
“In the long run, I will be judged on wins and losses,” Ensign said Thursday.
Ensign conceded Democrats “were hungrier” in 2006, and “they are just as hungry now.” The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee collected $13.7 million in the first three months of the year, its highest take ever for the first quarter. Republicans raised $7 million.
At the end of March, the Democrats had $9.5 million in the bank, while Ensign’s committee had $3.5 million.
Ensign said his biggest challenge is persuading Republican senators to take a more active role in fundraising and opening up their own wallets. He has set a $119 million goal for the cycle and has asked GOP senators to chip in $30 million of that.
“My colleagues can get much more involved,” he said.
An unpopular Republican president managing an unpopular war isn’t helping.
“It certainly would help if his approval ratings were higher,” Ensign said of President Bush. “But at the same time, we still have the White House, so it is an advantage because he can help us with fundraising.”
Success breeds success, Ensign said. Donors who gave to the Democrats last cycle saw results and are more likely to give again.
As for Republicans, “Last time, our people gave money and lost seats. There is a feeling they didn’t get anything for their money.”
Nonetheless, Ensign said two or three top-tier Senate candidates “are on the brink” of announcing, and he maintained money from the base will flow to Republicans as Democrats unfurl more of their agenda.
“Just watch what the Democrats are doing now,” he said. “They are threatening $700 million in new taxes. That alone gets most people’s attention. And then when there are certain paybacks to the labor unions … there are plenty of issues out there” to energize Republican constituencies, Ensign said.
“The Republicans’ problem is that the American people disagree with them on the issues,” said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “As long as Republican senators keep carrying George Bush’s water on Iraq and a host of other issues, they will continue to be a minority party.”
Ensign took over the campaign committee after other Republicans turned it down. Everyone knew 2008 could be tough for the GOP, as it must defend 21 seats, while Democrats have only 12 senators up for re-election.
Ensign said he has no second thoughts, so far.
“I feel good about taking it on,” he said. “I realize how tough of a job it is and how important a job it is.”
Eddie Escobedo, publisher of El Mundo newspaper and one of the most influential leaders of the Nevada Hispanic community, was onstage with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson last week, with a broad smile beneath his signature bowler hat and a Richardson for President sticker on his shirt.
But Escobedo is officially in the camp of a different presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, whose star-studded list of Hispanic supporters angered many Nevada Hispanics who thought Richardson, who is Hispanic, should have gotten the community’s support.
Escobedo said he wasn’t trying to have it both ways in appearing at Richardson’s rally of his grass-roots Hispanic group, Mi Familia Con Bill Richardson, a week ago.
“I’m here as a journalist,” he said, grinning. “They came and stuck a sticker on me.”
Also present at the event, and not appearing onstage, was an El Mundo reporter.
As for his endorsement of Clinton, Escobedo said, “I owe a lot of loyalty to the Clintons. When he (Bill Clinton) was president, I was invited to the White House 11 times,” and six times to the exclusive White House Christmas parties.
Escobedo said when he first met with Hillary Clinton, he told her he’d had a dream she was the Democratic nominee and Richardson was her running mate.
Clinton smiled and told him it was too soon to say whether that was a possibility.
Two days later, Escobedo said, he saw Richardson and told him the same thing.
“He said, ‘Eddie, we’re still in the game,'” Escobedo recalled. “I don’t know what he meant by that.”
In an interview last week, Richardson said he had no interest in being the vice presidential nominee.
“No. My job is governor of New Mexico,” Richardson said. “No, I’d go back. I love being governor. I got 69 percent (of the vote in 2004). I’ve got four years. No, no.”
Assembly Education Chairwoman Bonnie Parnell on Friday urged Gov. Jim Gibbons to take a tour of Carson City schools, similar to the tour he took of a prison on Thursday.
Parnell, D-Carson City, said Gibbons should start with Carson High School, which she said is seriously overcrowded.
“Our schools are as overcrowded as our prisons,” Parnell said. “Too many high school students are dropping out or just coasting through their last few years of school, barely making the grade and certainly not prepared for today’s jobs.”
Gibbons has proposed spending $300 million on new prison construction in his $6.8 billion state budget.
During a Thursday hearing on her bill to fund full-day kindergarten in all schools, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, pointed out that the Gibbons budget includes just $13 million for new public school programs.
Buckley noted it would cost an additional $2,400 per student to provide full-day kindergarten for eligible students, while the state spends more than $20,000 per year to incarcerate each prisoner.
Parnell said she hoped if the governor toured schools, he would see the need to allocate more money for Nevada’s education system.
“The funding for new enhancements in the governor’s proposed education budget is a fraction of what he is proposing in new money for other projects, including prisons,” Parnell said. “We need a redirection of priorities.”
Gibbons’ press secretary, Melissa Subbotin, said public education is “one of the priorities, if not the top priority,” of the governor. She noted Gibbons has proposed an overall 14 percent increase in public education spending.
Democrats, however, say that money just covers teacher salary increases, inflation and higher student enrollment, with no provision for new programs.
Review-Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel contributed to this report. Contact political reporter Molly Ball at 387-2919 or MBall@reviewjournal.com.