If there is a surprise pickup this fall for the GOP, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign of Nevada thinks it might be in Massachusetts, where Democratic Sen. John Kerry is seeking re-election.
“Sure, John Kerry,” Ensign said when asked if he sees a sleeper race. He said Kerry’s “positives and negatives are literally one to one. He’s less popular in Massachusetts than he is in the rest of the country.”
Kerry’s likely Republican opponent is Jim Ogonowski, who lost a special election last year 51-46 percent to Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas, to replace former Democratic Rep. Martin Meehan.
“He’s the dark horse to watch this cycle,” Ensign said, calling him a “phenomenal candidate.” In addition to Ensign pushing Ogonowski, the NRSC has been focusing on Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, in several recent releases.
Kerry spokesman David Wade dismissed the idea. “NRSC must stand for ‘Nobody really shows competence,’” he said. “Then again, if I were John Ensign, I’d be hoping for a big surprise instead of campaigning on the Bush recession, $4-a-gallon gas and [Arizona GOP Sen.]John McCain’s 100 years in Iraq. No wonder our Democratic majority in the Senate will grow in November.”
Wade said first-quarter fundraising reports show Kerry with a massive cash advantage, with $9.1 million on hand while Ogonowski has just under $200,000.
Ensign said in an interview with CongressDaily reporters Wednesday that the NRSC is monitoring races very carefully because last time no one saw Virginia GOP Sen. George Allen’s defeat coming just six months out.
As for the “Macaca” comment that helped undo Allen, Ensign said “one of the things we’ve talked to our people about is that because of the Internet today, races can become races overnight. And we have to have discipline.”
A flip in Massachusetts could bring Ensign closer to the NRSC’s initial mantra that “It takes two seats,” to regain the majority.
But Ensign said that drive changed after recruiting problems in South Dakota and Iowa dropped those states out of the competitive category.
New Jersey has had its ups and downs for both parties in the Senate race, but Ensign believes he can count on former Republican Rep. Dick Zimmer as his candidate, and that the seat will be competitive.
Of any of the seats Democrats have to defend, Ensign is most bullish on Louisiana. “We think we’re going to win Louisiana. We think we’re going to beat Mary Landrieu.”
A poll out this week by Southern Media & Opinion Research has Landrieu leading her Republican opponent, state Treasurer Jack Kennedy, 50 percent-38 percent. The telephone survey of 600 likely voters was conducted from March 26 through April 9 and had a 4-point error margin
As for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer’s advantage of having a cycle under his belt, Ensign said “the bigger advantage he has is that he has New York City for fundraising.”
But Ensign sees a positive note there, too. “I have literally gone up there every couple of weeks.”
“A lot of people that he got to write them checks last year are writing us checks this year,” said Ensign, which he attributed to the financial sector becoming frustrated with the Democratic majority.
Ensign gave one example of an individual who raised $250,000 at a fundraiser for Schumer last year who ended up raising $300,000 for him this year.
“The economy is definitely an issue we can win on,” he said, later adding that the DSCC and its slate of candidates “did not win on a Democrat populist message in 2006.”
Instead, Ensign said the Republican Party’s insistence on lowering taxes will be its answer to the Democrats’ economic message. “They complain about high gas prices, but they don’t do anything to lower gas prices,” he said.
This article appears in the April 19, 2008, edition of NJ Daily.