Narrowly defeated in his bid for a fourth term, Montana Sen. Conrad Burns 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 important races.
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 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 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 and Halloween.
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, 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 within campaigns.
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’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 and Michigan.
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 squabbling.
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 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 escapes notice.
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 period.
"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 campaign committee.
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 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 deep hole.