WASHINGTON — Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran is angling for a key leadership role in the Republican Party, a move that could catapult the 58-year-old politician from Plainville into the national spotlight.
The first-term senator is campaigning for the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm that’s tasked with electing Republicans to the upper chamber of Congress.
The high-profile, high-pressure gig would be a big step up for Moran, and it would put him at the forefront of Republican efforts to rebound from disappointing losses in last week’s elections. Given the trouncing Republicans suffered, a heavy burden would be placed on the new chairman to produce winners in the next go-round.
Moran told reporters with several Capitol Hill newspapers that he’s been lobbying hard for the job in face-to-face meetings with his colleagues. He believes he has the votes to win.
“I have talked to all of my colleagues present and future and have had a sufficient number of commitments that I would be elected to chair the NRSC,” Moran said in a telephone interview with The Hill. He declined comment for this article.
As of Tuesday, the scuttlebutt was that Republican leadership favored Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, for the post. Portman, once considered a possible running mate for Mitt Romney, has closer ties to the Republican establishment than Moran and a bigger reputation on the national stage. But a Republican aide close to Portman said he has decided not to run, clearing the way for Moran.
A secret-ballot vote by the Senate Republican Conference is expected on Wednesday. So far, Moran is the only senator openly running for the post.
“He’s been an extraordinary cautious and state-oriented legislator, and this is a real stepping onto the national stage,” said Burdett Loomis, professor of political science at University of Kansas. “It’s a real change of pace for him, and even announcing that you’re interested gets a little more visibility. … I think he looked around at 45 other senators and said, ‘Why not me?’ And that’s the right first question to ask, I think.”
Whoever wins the chairmanship will have his or her work cut out as Republicans look to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in 2014. They need a net gain of six seats to do so after suffering a net loss of two seats in 2012.
This year’s poor performance especially rankled because both parties had agreed that Republicans had a better opportunity to win the majority.
“We have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party,” said the outgoing NRSC chairman, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, in a sober election night statement. “... Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead.”
Twenty Democratic seats and 13 Republican seats will be in play in 2014. Historically, the president’s party is considered vulnerable in such off-year elections, so the advantage should go to Republicans. But after 2012, some see 2014 as another opportunity for the GOP to blow it, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“You have to have sympathy for the NRSC chairman because the state electorates just won’t listen to him,” Sabato said. “They seem to resent any type of professional political advice and that leads them to nominate unelectable candidates.”
Moran can afford to take the chance because he doesn’t have to worry about his own reelection, said Joe Aistrup, professor of political science at Kansas State University.
“The big advantage that Sen. Moran has is that he’s in one of the safest seats in the nation, so he’s not going to be putting his position in any way shape or form in jeopardy by taking on this role,” Aistrup said. “This type of position is a good way to make a lot of friends and, you know, that expands your circle of influence… He’s got everything to gain, nothing to lose by this.”
If Moran does snag the chairmanship, Kansas stands to benefit, said Jeff Roe, chief executive officer of Axiom Strategies, a national political consulting firm with offices in Missouri and Washington, D.C.
“Having somebody in leadership in Washington is always better for the state, and it would put it on the map where it really hasn’t been since Bob Dole was in the leadership,” Roe said.
A major part of the NRSC chairman’s job is fundraising. The position demands a huge investment in time, travel and – of course – money. Moran would be expected to build up a war chest to support Republican Senate candidates
In 2012, Moran’s leadership PAC raised $560,455 and contributed $80,000 to federal candidates, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
Although Portman looks unlikely to challenge Moran for the chairmanship, his fundraising prowess might explain why many Republicans reportedly urged him to run. This year, Portman’s leadership PAC raised $1.2 million, and contributed $208,500 to Republican Congressional and gubernatorial candidates, more than twice Moran’s contribution.
“One of my questions about Moran is the money: Has he ever had to raise or does he have the ability to raise the kind of money he needs to raise to do this?” said Jennifer Duffy, senate analyst and senior editor with Cook Political Report, which provides non-partisan analysis of U.S. elections.
“Why was somebody like Cornyn a good choice? Because Texas is a donor state,” Duffy said. “Kansas really isn’t, so I think that that’s one of his challenges.”
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