Meet the GOP’s Doomsday Preppers

Republicans are optimistic that their current class of reelection-seeking senators is ready for the primaries—come what may.

Senator John Boozman (AR) poses a question to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during Secretary Vilsack's testimony on "Healthy Food Initiatives, Local Production and Nutrition," before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, March 7, 2012 in Washington, D.C. USDA photo by Bob Nichols.
National Journal
Andrea Drusch and Alex Roarty
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Andrea Drusch and Alex Roarty
Jan. 28, 2015, 3 p.m.

Sen. John Booz­man has yet to draw so much as a whis­per of a ser­i­ous chal­lenger from the con­ser­vat­ive Right or the Demo­crat­ic field. But the Arkan­sas Re­pub­lic­an isn’t idly hop­ing his luck holds out: He’s build­ing the kind of polit­ic­al war ma­chine aimed not just at de­feat­ing po­ten­tial op­pon­ents, but in­tim­id­at­ing them out of run­ning in the first place.

Booz­man’s small team of aides and con­sult­ants are, more than 20 months be­fore the 2016 elec­tion, busily lin­ing up an ag­gress­ive fun­drais­ing sched­ule for the spring, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views, and they plan to hire a cam­paign man­ager by March. They’re com­mit­ted to keep­ing up the mo­mentum they think the first-term sen­at­or built dur­ing last year’s midterm elec­tions, when Booz­man’s bat­tery of cam­paign ral­lies, Lin­coln Day din­ners, and tens of thou­sands of dol­lars worth of PAC con­tri­bu­tions helped lift the Arkan­sas GOP to a sweep of vic­tor­ies.

It’s an ag­gress­ive agenda for a sen­at­or con­sidered a near lock to win reelec­tion, but it’s one that Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans hope is the norm for mem­bers whose terms ex­pire in 2016. Party lead­ers say they are op­tim­ist­ic that — after a re­cent past littered with in­cum­bents un­will­ing or in­cap­able of mount­ing even thread­bare reelec­tion ef­forts — the cur­rent class of sen­at­ors is tak­ing the ne­ces­sary steps to avoid be­ing caught off guard in a primary.

“That last thing you want to do is ap­pear vul­ner­able and get caught flat-footed like we’ve seen from sev­er­al mem­bers the last few cycles,” said Sarah Hucka­bee Sanders, a con­sult­ant for Booz­man help­ing him plot his reelec­tion strategy.

The early pre­par­a­tions aren’t solely a re­sponse to the high-pro­file de­feats or near-de­feats of mem­bers like former Sen. Richard Lugar in 2012 or Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014, Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives say. It’s a re­flec­tion, they say, of a caucus that’s simply more polit­ic­ally wired than it used to be.

“Every single Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or is put­ting ser­i­ous cam­paign teams in place months, and in some cases years, be­fore their pre­vi­ous cam­paigns wheth­er they need it or not,” said Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell. “It is much less at­tract­ive for chal­lengers to charge the hill if there is an army wait­ing for them at the top.”

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t guar­an­teed to make them­selves in­vul­ner­able to primary chal­lenges — of­ten, the cracks in reelec­tion cam­paigns don’t ap­pear un­til the stress of a hard-fought primary. Few ob­serv­ers, for in­stance, knew how poorly former House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor’s cam­paign had been run in the months be­fore his shock de­feat in 2014.

And not every sen­at­or has erased con­cerns about the fu­ture: Sen. Dan Coats in In­di­ana has con­tin­ued to flirt with re­tire­ment and had just $752,000 on hand to end last year’s third-quarter fun­drais­ing peri­od.

But con­ver­sa­tions with op­er­at­ives work­ing across the 2016 Sen­ate map in­dic­ate the vast ma­jor­ity of in­cum­bents have suc­cess­fully fo­cused on, at min­im­um, present­ing an in­tim­id­at­ing reelec­tion or­gan­iz­a­tion.

Most com­monly, in­cum­bents are stock­ing their war chests. Earli­er this week Sens. Jerry Mor­an of Kan­sas and Roy Blunt of Mis­souri each re­por­ted strong fourth-quarter fun­drais­ing hauls. And Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama takes the cake for fin­an­cial in­tim­id­a­tion, boast­ing more than $18 mil­lion in the bank.

They’ve also taken the ad­ded step of push­ing the num­bers out to the press, re­ceiv­ing plenty of at­ten­tion among polit­ic­al watch­ers.

Oth­er mem­bers once spec­u­lated to be con­sid­er­ing re­tire­ment have de­clared they’re not only run­ning, but have already star­ted build­ing a cam­paign. Sen. Chuck Grass­ley of Iowa re­cently boas­ted to Roll Call that he’d star­ted his reelec­tion cam­paign last year, and Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois has said he’s run­ning “come hell or high wa­ter.”

More drastic ef­forts in­clude those of Sen. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona, a likely tar­get for a primary chal­lenge, whose al­lies formed their own su­per PAC to sys­tem­at­ic­ally un­seat his de­tract­ors in the state party from in­flu­en­tial roles as pre­cinct com­mit­tee­men. Sen. Rob Port­man of Ohio — whose sup­port for gay mar­riage has stirred talk of a primary chal­lenge — rolled out his reelec­tion bid with not only a $5.8 mil­lion stock­pile, but also a 250-name en­dorse­ment list of Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials in his state.

Port­man, Kirk, and to a less­er ex­tent Mc­Cain and Blunt are likely to face ser­i­ous Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ents in 2016, mak­ing their own early pre­par­a­tions less sur­pris­ing. But Re­pub­lic­ans who aren’t top-tier Demo­crat­ic tar­gets are non­ethe­less pre­par­ing in earn­est and tak­ing in­spir­a­tion from col­leagues who have gone through it be­fore — like Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der of Ten­ness­ee.

The third-term sen­at­or and former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate was a nat­ur­al tea-party tar­get in 2014 based on his mod­er­ate re­cord, but he man­aged to dis­suade the cred­ible op­pon­ents in his state from run­ning years in ad­vance. When Al­ex­an­der’s race was hit by a late wave of tea-party sup­port fol­low­ing Can­tor’s de­feat, all that was left for the move­ment to rally around was a little-known state as­sembly­man who had already been big-footed out a House race.

“Most in­cum­bents get in trouble not be­cause of votes they cast, but be­cause of the per­cep­tion or the fact that they’ve stopped pay­ing at­ten­tion to the people they work for,” said Al­ex­an­der, who began his own reelec­tion ef­fort more than two years early.

Be­fore he’d even an­nounced his in­ten­tions to run at the state ex­ec­ut­ive com­mit­tee, Al­ex­an­der re­cruited his state’s en­tire Re­pub­lic­an del­eg­a­tion to join his cam­paign com­mit­tee. “The most cred­ible can­did­ates who could have run against me in a Re­pub­lic­an primary were co­chair­men of my cam­paign, and so were the 13 per­sons who would be the best cam­paign man­agers against me in a primary — the former Re­pub­lic­an state chair­men,” Al­ex­an­der said.

As sen­at­ors fa­cing voters in 2016 pre­pare their cam­paigns, they’re look­ing to Al­ex­an­der and oth­er mem­bers of their party who’ve suc­cess­fully nav­ig­ated chal­lenges.

“I learned a long time ago that ex­per­i­ence is the best teach­er, so I’ve asked a lot of ques­tions,” said Sen. Johnny Isak­son, a Geor­gia Re­pub­lic­an up next cycle. “Lamar’s a great friend, Lind­sey [Gra­ham] is a great friend, Pat Roberts is a great friend, Thad Co­chran is a great friend — I’ve sought ex­per­i­ence and ad­vice from all of them be­cause that’s the way to be pre­pared.”

Isak­son rolled out his own cam­paign with a rally at the Geor­gia state­house, flanked by mem­bers of his del­eg­a­tion who some saw as his strongest would-be chal­lengers.

Booz­man, whose aides say has fully re­covered from emer­gency heart sur­gery last year, hasn’t had a reelec­tion rally yet, but last week he sent his closest sup­port­ers let­ters let­ting them know that he’ll be run­ning again in 2016, ac­cord­ing to Rex Terry, a county GOP chair­man in Arkan­sas. Terry, for his part, hasn’t heard any­one talk ser­i­ously about chal­len­ging Booz­man. But he un­der­stands the rush to be­gin rais­ing money and build­ing a cam­paign any­way.

“I think it’s just prudent on his part,” Terry said. “But I don’t think he’s got a prob­lem.”

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