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Nevada Senator John Ensign maps out the GOP strategy for taking the Senate back in ’08

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

HH: Joined now by United States Senator John Ensign from the great state of Nevada. Senator, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

JE: Great to be with you, Hugh.

HH: You have picked a very interesting year to agree to be the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, because the map looks pretty like you’re playing defense this time.

JE: Well, there’s no question it’s a tough cycle. We have 21 Republicans who are up for reelection, and only 12 Democrats. So just from a pure numbers standpoint, it certainly looks like it’s going to be a very tough election cycle. And you toss that in for the mood of the country right now, and with the announcement in Colorado, Wayne Allard has decided not to run for reelection, we certainly have some big challenges. But I always look at big challenges as big opportunities, so I’m very excited. It’s a new job for me, and I look at something like this, I’m kind of a Ronald Reagan optimist. I just think that the bigger the challenges are, the more chance that you have to lead.

HH: Three cycles ago, Bill Frist was here a lot, two cycles ago, George Allen. And in both of those cycles, they raised a lot of money from donors who were $25, $50, $100 donors via the internet. I’m not sure that the NRSC did so well with the small donors last time around, Senator Ensign. Where’s your focus going to be?

JE: Well, our focus is going to be unlocking every resource that we can possibly unlock. We’re going to make a big push not only on talk radio but the internet. There are small donors, because small donors aren’t just the amount of money that they send in, but they also get politically involved. They’re the people who will talk to their neighbors. And if you can get somebody as a small donor, they can be involved politically. They can help you on your grass roots effort. So that’s going to be a very, very big part of our campaign to take back the majority in the United States Senate.

HH: Now of course, two years ago as well, a lot of center-right conservatives simply weren’t going to give money with Lincoln Chafee on the ballot. He’s gone now, so maybe the Force will come back. But let’s talk about candidate recruitment, Senator Ensign. Even though it’s 2-1 against you, there are, I think, at least five potential pickups where Democrats are in Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, Arkansas and Louisiana. In those five state in particular, how goes candidate recruitment?

JE: Well, we’ve been talking to…I’ve personally been talking to a lot of folks, and in several of those states, we have some outstanding possibilities. Obviously, I’d be getting in front of myself if I told you who I was talking to, or how those conversations were going. We have to let them speak for themselves. But candidly, behind the scenes, conversations have been going extraordinarily well, and in some of these places where we do need to recruit against some Democrats. Obviously, if we hold all of our 21 seats, we’re still in the minority, if we don’t pick up a Democrat. So we have to have a couple of targets, and we plan on being very aggressive, and focusing on just a few of them that we can pick up.

HH: Now are those the five that generally cause eyebrows to go up, Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, Arkansas and Louisiana?

JE: Yes. Those are certainly the areas that most people would put on their radar screen, but you never know. You never know how things will go, for instance, in West Virginia. I mean, you just never know. And in some of the other places around the country, nobody in the last election thought Virginia was going to be a race. The Democrats ended up, because of some things that didn’t go exactly how we wanted them to go during the campaign, Virginia, we ended up losing that. And at the beginning of the race, nobody thought Virginia would have been a race. So we’re going to keep our eyes open, and if there are missteps by the Democrats, then we’re going to jump on them.

HH: Let’s talk about the vulnerabilities. In addition, of course, to an open seat now in Colorado, we’re looking at most sheets at Oregon and Kentucky and New Hampshire as being particular vulnerables. Have I left any off?

JE: No, Kentucky’s not vulnerable, but you would definitely…

HH: Isn’t that Bunning this year?

JE: No.

HH: Okay, it’s the minority leader. Okay, then I’m wrong.

JE: Yeah, Mitch McConnell is up. But you would certainly have to say Norm Coleman up in Minnesota…

HH: Of course.

JE: …who is a great candidate in and of himself. He’s a great guy. But it’s a tough state.

HH: Yeah.

JE: Gordon Smith, once again, terrific candidate, but a tough state. John Sununu in New Hampshire is a very, very…state that used to be very solidly Republican, is trending the other way now, and John’s done a good job positioning himself in a way for reelection, but we certainly have to pay attention to that one, and then Susan Collins up in Maine. You know, Maine’s always a very tough state. Susan’s about as conservative as you can be from that part of the country, and you know, she does a good job up there of positioning herself well for her state. But she may have a tough race this time.

HH: Now Senator Ensign, you mentioned Senator Smith in Oregon, Senator Coleman in Minnesota. Norm’s a friend of this program, we like Norm a lot. But I’ve been getting a ton of e-mail because of a perceived lack of support for the President on Iraq from both of those Senators, and of course, John Sununu had his Patriot Act problems. Are these things that Republican voters are just going to have to get used to this time around if they want the majority back?

JE: Well, I look at it the way Ronald Reagan looked at it, Hugh, and that is that somebody who agrees with you 80% of the time? That’s your friend, not your enemy. And there isn’t a single Republican out there that I agree with all the time, and you know, you just have to agree to disagree on some issues. But when somebody’s on your side 80% of the time, that’s somebody you have to support. I mean, I haven’t supported the President on some of his major proposals, but on most things, I support the President. And it’s…you just have to look at where are they in general, and the people you mentioned are very solid Republicans.

HH: Now when do you expect that we’ll start getting some announcements about people who’ll be contending in Montana and South Dakota and Iowa and Arkansas and Louisiana?

JE: Well, I’d like to see those things come out sooner rather than later, simply because running against an incumbent today is, and I did that. I did that back in 1998. I ran against Harry Reid, who is now the majority leader of the U.S. Senate. He beat me, by the way, just by 428 votes.

HH: I remember it well.

JE: Very, very close election.

HH: You and John Thune are the landslide club back therer.

JE: Yes, yes. It was a very, very close race, and so I know what it’s like to run against an incumbent. And the earlier you can get in the race, the better chance that you have of winning, because you have to literally dedicate so much into grass roots, so much into making phone calls and asking people for money, and inspiring young people to get involved in your campaign, and figuring out the strategies to run against an incumbent, because incumbents have a huge advantage. And so if you’re going to run against one, you need to get in as early as possible.

HH: And for Doc Allard’s job, anyone popped up already that you think is going to be a strong candidate for the nomination?

JE: Well, the good thing about Colorado is we have, actually, quite a few candidates out there. And I mean, just mention a couple of them, Bob Schaeffer and Scott McGinnis, both former members of Congress, you know, terrific guys, but there’s plenty others out there that are statewide office holders, and things that we can look to. They have a pretty good bench in Colorado. It didn’t go well for us in Colorado in the last election cycle, but we plan on turning that around in this election.

HH: Senator Ensign, from the, thank you, Senator. We’ll talk to you a lot in ’07 and ’08.

End of interview.

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