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Ensign Surveys the '08 Landscape

By Reid Wilson and Kyle Trygstad

Senate Republican campaign chief John Ensign faces a deck stacked decidedly against him. With twenty three Republican seats to defend, compared with just twelve Democratic seats he might pick off, Ensign is unlikely to get public credit for saving his party. Add to that an unpopular war in Iraq, a downturned economy and a Republican President at near record low approval ratings, and Ensign has reason to be pessimistic.

But, in an interview with Real Clear Politics, Ensign remained optimistic. "The hypothetical is if the election were held today, it might not go so well for us," he said. "But the election's not being held today."

Ensign is more than a little invested in the hope that this November will not see a repeat of 2006 when Democrats successfully defended all their open seats and ousted three incumbent Republican red-state Senators to win back control . "What happened in 2006, what were the two big factors? George Bush and Iraq. Iraq's going better, and George Bush isn't on the ticket," he said. Democrats "are going to want to make it about him, but he's not going to be our standard-bearer. Things are going a lot better for us politically, I believe, and for our candidates. And then it just comes down to who's running better races."

Iraq has become "more of a non-issue," one that Ensign believes Republicans will not have to confront next year. "You see it keeps dropping farther and farther down on people's radars, they may be opposed to the war but it's not as important," he said. That helps several incumbents seeking another term, including Oregon's Gordon Smith, Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, all of whom represent strongly anti-war states and who have begun to break with their party.

Ensign sees an economic argument benefiting his party, even after the turmoil of recent years. "The solution is not taking more of their money. The solution is giving more of their money back. Whether it's business or whether it's individuals, I mean, we have a better brand on that," he said. And, though a bipartisan compromise on an economic stimulus package would be announced the following morning, Ensign moved beyond the spirit of cooperation. "If you're looking at the Democrats, yes, they are embracing tax cuts, but they're also embracing more spending that does not stimulate the economy. Even things like transportation dollars, which they do stimulate the economy when that's being spent. But if you propose it now, it takes several years to take effect. That's not an economic stimulus package."

That brief flare of partisanship, Ensign believes, might just be the trick that gives his party a chance. "Congress is incredibly unpopular," he said. "And they are the party in power. They're the party that controls both houses of Congress. In general, there's an anti-Washington mood."

With 12 Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2008, there is little doubt which seat Republicans have their eye on. "Louisiana is definitely number one," he said, "No question about it."

Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who has long been considered vulnerable, is being challenged this year by Treasurer John Kennedy, a former Democrat who has won three statewide elections. After winning her first election in 1996 by less than 6,000 votes, Landrieu barely held her seat in 2002, winning by just 4 points. Since Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans population has decreased considerably, the majority of whom were Democrats. And with many of the people leaving the state entirely, a large portion of Landrieu's Democratic base is gone.

"You go through the demographics of the voting bloc down there, in the governor's election," Ensign said, referring to Republican Bobby Jindal's victory in the December state election. "Well, all of the advantage she had moved out of state. So I feel very good about us being able to beat Mary Landrieu."

While knocking off sitting Democrats is certainly a goal, Ensign has his hands full keeping the 23 Republican seats up for election this year. In New Hampshire, Republican Senator John Sununu is in a rematch with former Governor Jeanne Shaheen, the Democrat he defeated by 4 points for the open Senate seat in 2002. Sununu, the youngest member of the Senate, is facing tough odds this year, Ensign said. Both of the state's incumbent Republican congressmen were defeated in 2006, and New Hampshire was the only state in the country to vote against Bush in 2004 after voting for him in 2000.

"John Sununu is going to have the most challenging race," Ensign said. "I think it's going to come down to a one, two, three point race, on either side." But Ensign remains optimistic of Sununu's chances, saying he fits the state and its voters well. "If you look up in the dictionary somebody who's from New Hampshire, you'll see his picture. He is born, raised, bred; he's very libertarian type, very similar to New Hampshirites."

Colorado is a potentially vulnerable state for Republicans due to the retirement of incumbent Senator Wayne Allard, and the state's recent penchant for voting Democratic. Bush carried the state by just 5 points in 2004, after defeating Gore in 2000 by 9 points. According to the most recent polls, the race between former Republican Congressman Bob Schaffer and Democratic Congressman Mark Udall will likely be close, but Ensign said he still expects Schaffer to win.

Another seat Republicans are fighting to hold on to is in New Mexico, where Senator Pete Domenici is retiring. All three of the state's members of Congress are running: Republicans Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson, and Democrat Tom Udall. Ensign likes his party's chances, despite the likelihood of a costly Republican primary.

"They have a little advantage because we have a primary and they don't," he said. "At the same time, that doesn't mean you can't win. We saw that in Virginia. [In 2006, Democrats] had a primary, George Allen didn't. [Allen] lost. So it still depends on who runs the good races." And as Ensign pointed out, New Mexico is a swing state, having been decided in each of the last two presidential elections by less than a point.

Ensign has worked hard to keep pace with his Democratic counterparts. The DSCC, for the first time in recent memory, has outraised the NRSC, but Ensign points out that finance reports to be disclosed at the end of the month will show his party in better position than it was two years ago. "We're ahead of where we were cash on hand two years ago, because we really did a great job of cutting our expenses and being very, very smart with our money," he said.

"It does present us with a challenge. In elections, you know, obviously more money is better. But if you look at the election, it isn't always a question of who has more money that wins. It is who does better with their money, who has better messaging. Conrad Burns dramatically outspent Tester. George Allen outspent Jim Webb," he said. "You can go down race by race -- Jim Talent outspent McCaskill -- I mean, race by race there are a lot of races where we outspent the Democrats and we lost."

And, Ensign claims, the money is flowing more easily now. "You know, our donors were down. They were frustrated, they were down, they were mad, they were angry, and now they're seeing what the Democrats are all about. As a matter of fact, New York City is probably the best place that we're seeing that. We had a very big turn around in New York City, where people wouldn't take my phone calls the first six months. Not even take my phone calls!" He laughed. "Then we started getting some meetings with them, and the Democrats came out with all their tax proposals, and New York all of a sudden has loosened up its wallet."

Recruiting, too, has picked up. While refusing to divulge names, Ensign hinted that two new candidates could emerge in Iowa and South Dakota, to take on Senators Tom Harkin and Tim Johnson. "If we're able to sign them, they will be absolutely heavyweight -- they are heavyweight candidates and if we can get them on board, they will be absolutely national races that people will pay attention to right away," he said.

One "dark horse" race Ensign offered as a possible vulnerability for Democrats was in New Jersey, where Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, who turned 84 on Wednesday, has been faced with low poll numbers. Still, New Jersey is a Democratic-leaning state, having voted for a Democrat in the last four presidential elections. Lautenberg will face either State Senator Joe Pennacchio or Anne Estabrook, the former New Jersey Chamber of Commerce chair. Ensign particularly likes Estabrook's chances. "She's got the right profile," he said. "Fiscal conservative, social moderate, successful businesswoman, energetic and has some money to be able to put in the race."

"I'm not saying we're going to be the favorite there, I'm giving you the dark horse. But I want you to pay attention to it. You heard it here."

By the end of 2008, DSCC chairman Chuck Schumer will likely be hailed as a hero for picking up a few new seats. Ensign has the opportunity, though, to be the real ace, if only by limiting his party's losses. Republicans are unlikely to regain the majority - Ensign calls picking up the two necessary seats the best-case scenario - but if he is successful, he can limit the damage. "I think worst case scenario -- 45, 46 [seats, a loss of three or four]," he said. "If we have a real bad night, we're 45. A good night for us, staying 48, 49, that's a real good night."

To read the full interview with Senator Ensign, click here.

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Reid Wilson and Kyle Trygstad
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