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Sitting Down With John Ensign

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Republicans face a dangerous terrain next year, no one is feeling the pressure more than NRSC chairman John Ensign. Few know the national landscape like Nevada's junior senator, who has been given the sometimes unenviable task of protecting his colleagues while booting as many Democrats as possible.

Ensign sat down with Real Clear Politics on Wednesday evening to survey the playing field and offer his analysis heading into 2008. As usual, RCP's questions have been cleaned up, but Ensign's responses are verbatim:

RCP: Heading into next year, what kind of mood are Senate Republicans facing on the trail?

NRSC Chairman John Ensign: First of all, a year out is really an eternity in politics. A year before the 2006 elections, if you would have asked Republicans and Democrats how they were feeling, which they did, you go back and read, you know, Republicans were feeling very, very good. Democrats were, you know, shaky at best. And if you go back in 2003, a year before 2004, if you go back, I mean a year before the last several election cycles, the party that felt pretty darn good about their chances, election day didn't turn out so well.

There are a lot of factors. You know, the mood in the country, you know, the hypothetical is if the election were held today, it might not go so well for us. But the election's not being held today.

Click below for the complete transcript.

Obviously Iraq has turned around dramatically. And that's, all points look like it's going to continue to turn around. They're actually starting to make some political progress along with the military progress that's been had over there. And that's a big deal. And now we have the economy and the downturn, you know, the potential downturn in the economy. Which party looks like they have the best solutions for that and which party is willing to actually solve the problem instead of making politics out of it. And which party can offer solutions that stimulate the economy.

You know, it's very clear that you had a party that proposed tax increases after tax increases and spending. Now, the economy turns down and now they all of a sudden want to cut taxes. The American people know we are the party that wants to give them their own money back. That will stimulate the economy, it proves every time. And so I think that it's going to be a very effective issue for us come November.

There's some other things that are potentially very good out there for us. First of all, the Democrats right now running for president, they are so overly confident that they are running way left. Normally you're trying not to get too far right or too far left in the presidential election cycle, okay? Republicans aren't trying to go too far right, you're noticing that. Democrats are going way left. And it's difficult when you're that far left to come back at all, you know, to the center where the American people are. And I think that, regardless of which one of them comes out on top, it gives us a pretty good person to run against.

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. They're 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. I don't think this is going to be a nationalized election. You don't see nationalized elections two elections in a row. I think it's going to be race by race by race, and who runs the best races, and you know the smartest, has the best ideas and things like that and I think we win on ideas.

RCP: Polls continue to show more Americans trust Democrats to handle the economy better than Republicans. How do you get over that hurdle now that the economy is a central issue?

Ensign: 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. And what we have to do now is take that, and show them where they have been and where we have been and where we are.

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. The best thing you can do right now is, you know, to give businesses money to spend.

I'm going to have a proposal that we'll lay out in the next several days to bring more of the money that's been made overseas back home, which we did, we're going to try to replicate what we did a couple of years ago where we brought back $350 billion. That can help stimulate the economy. And you give individuals who pay taxes, you give them more of their money back. That stimulates the economy in the short run.

RCP: Regardless of good news out of Iraq, it seems like American public opinion on the war have solidified against it. How do you surmount that challenge?

Ensign: It just becomes more of a non-issue, I think is what it does. 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. But national security is still important to people, and who can handle national security.

This whole FISA issue, I'm pretty sure the American people care more about their own security than they do about the civil rights of a terrorist who lives overseas. And the Democrats have been in the position to defend a terrorist from outside this country's civil rights. That's a pretty good issue for us. That's why you see the Democrats caving on this issue.

RCP: What do you say to Democrats who will argue the bill is an excuse to let the government tap your phones?

Ensign: Because it isn't. It's about the government tapping terrorists' phones from overseas. And their emails. It's about tapping them. Now if they happen to be calling you, okay, that's a problem. If you're an ordinary American citizen, you're probably not getting calls from terrorists.

RCP: The Republican Party isn't very popular right now --

Ensign: Congress is incredibly unpopular though. 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. And I think that whichever one of the candidates can run on a few things wins: This election is going to be about independent voters. You know, our base is fine, their base is fine. It's going to be about independents. Who attracts independents on issues, whether it's the economy, whether it's health care, whether it's education, those kinds of issues that are core issues anymore, I think whichever candidates communicate the best, who has the best solutions.

You've got a Washington-run health care system versus a health care system where they choose their own doctors that's affordable and accessible. That's the Republican solution. Democrats are, you know, a government-run health care system. Washington doesn't run things very, very well. It's an anti-Washington mood. When you're proposing more Washington-type solutions, that doesn't go very well.

With our schools, you keep putting more of the control, putting the students first instead of teachers' unions first. We need to be communicating to people that it's time to quit caring about somebody's power in the schools and think about the kids and their education. Too long, we have cared about protecting bad teachers. We've got to be able to fire bad teachers and pay good ones more. The Democrats have been protecting that system for too long.

We've got to do a better job teaching science and math. The current education establishment takes education majors and we teach science and math. Instead of science and math majors to teach science and math, which every other industrialized country does. We've got to fundamentally change that, and I think we've got a good message to be able to take across to the American people that, you know, we care about education, but here are the solutions to education, not the same old tired diatribe that the Democrats have been proposing.

RCP: Gordon Smith, Susan Collins, and Norm Coleman are running in increasingly Democratic states. Is it okay, and necessary, for them to run against the Republican brand?

Ensign: It's okay for them to run as who they are. They match their states, all three of those match their states incredibly well. And they're all running great campaigns. They've put great teams together, they're raising a lot of money, and frankly we like all of their opponents. If we could choose them out there, we feel pretty good about them. I expect all three of those folks to win re-election, and I'd be really shocked if we lost any of those three.

RCP: What are Republicans' best pickup opportunities?

Ensign: Louisiana is definitely number one, no question about it. John Kennedy is a fantastic candidate. Her [Senator Mary Landrieu's] numbers are bad. The reality is the Republicans have taken over that state. The power base in the governor's office and the Ag commissioner and everything is gone. Plus a lot of her voters left the state. They're gone.

As evidence, you go through the demographics of the voting bloc down there, in the governor's election, and she's never had anything but a close race. Well, all of her advantage she had moved out of state. So I feel very good about us being able to beat Mary Landrieu, and John Kennedy is fantastic on the issues. We're united as a Republican Party down there for the first time in a long time, and so I feel very very good about our chances.

I'll leave them off the table for now, but if we get a couple of candidates that we're recruiting right now in a couple of states, we won't say who they are, who we're recruiting, but I'll mention the states: South Dakota and Iowa. South Dakota and Iowa, these two candidates, 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. They're great candidates, both of them, and they can run effective campaigns very easily.

I'll give you a dark horse, for us, and that's in New Jersey. Anne Estabrook is, I think, she's got a primary over there, but she's got the right profile. Fiscal conservative, social moderate, successful businesswoman, energetic and has some money to be able to put in the race. So I'm just giving you that as a dark horse. And his numbers are horrible. Absolutely horrible.

RCP: But isn't New Jersey a black hole into which Republicans have thrown millions away over the last several cycles?

Ensign: Well we had a great chance against Torricelli. We would have beat Torricelli, okay? But all the sudden they changed the rules, that's a little tougher to play against. We would have beat Torricelli. But I think that if Lautenberg runs, 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.

RCP: Which seats Republicans currently hold present you with the biggest challenges?

Ensign: As far as incumbents are concerned, I think John Sununu is going to have the most challenging race, and I think that that one's -- you know, the polls are all over the place, and it's probably pretty much of an even race. And I think it's going to be like that the whole time, and I think it's going to come down to a one, two, three point race, on either side, and whoever runs the best race.

The one thing about it is, first of all she's [former Governor Jeanne Shaheen] showing a little weakness I think in the last quarter on her fundraising where he is just doing a great job, and he's banking his money, which is really important. But also, John fits that state. 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.

They're not really Republican, they're very, a freedom type of orientation there. And taxes can be a huge issue up there based on her record as governor. I think that he'll run a very, very effective race. He's brilliant politically, he's great on issues and he has a record of accomplishment down here. He isn't one of those people that is -- he's very independent and he's got a record that is clearly independent.

RCP: But in 2006, there probably wasn't a worse place to be a Republican than in New Hampshire.

Ensign: They got exposed to both sides a lot earlier than the rest of the country, and they've been exposed over and over, so they know. You had the Democrats really running left, so they see what the Democrats are about up there. And I don't know if you noticed, but John Sununu's poll numbers improved dramatically during that time. I think that says something. They understand who the Democrats are right now.

RCP: The NRSC has lagged behind the DSCC in fundraising this year. How's the money looking lately?

Ensign: We did a great job with our money. 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. And we approach this place like a business, and we're offering more services and doing it for less money. And everybody is working harder than they've ever worked. And we have an unbelievable team here.

But 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. 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.

You have to get to a minimum threshold, and that's what you always have to look at, and then it's who has a better message.

RCP: What are you hearing when you talk to prospective donors?

Ensign: The last couple of months, much better than the first. 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!

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. We're having a much better effect on a lot of folks because the Democrats talked one way and then they came in and they just couldn't help being Democrats.

RCP: Many Republican voters were turned off by the party's perceived lack of discipline on federal spending. How can the party turn that reputation around?

Ensign: I've said for a long time that we need to change. We've justified it for a long time that we were better than Democrats, and so that was okay. We are better than Democrats, but it hasn't been okay. We need to do a much better job with holding the line and we did a great job at the end of the year. That's the first time, I've been here eleven years, that's the first time we beat the Democrats on spending. We beat the appropriators and the Democrats on spending. We've never done that before in my eleven years. First time.

We not only beat them there, we beat them on the energy bill, we beat them on SCHIP, on AMT, we beat them on everything. There wasn't a single issue that we lost at the end of the year. We held tough, we held together, and that was a valuable lesson for us, that if we think about policy, and we don't try to be Democrat-lite, we actually try to govern as Republicans, the American people will actually -- that's why they were frustrated with us.

They elected us to govern, you know, you hear this. They elected us to govern. No, they elected us to govern as Republicans, with certain principles. Fiscal conservatism was one of the principles they elected us on. We did a good job on keeping the taxes low, but we did not do a good job on spending.

We're getting that message, and we're turning things around. That was a big part of our discussion today in our retreat. The pollsters told us, 'One of the most important things for you all to do is to actually keep your promises,' okay? Don't say one thing in a campaign and then govern a different way.

RCP: You mentioned New Jersey as a sleeper race for Republicans. What's the Democrats' version of a dark horse or sleeper race?

Ensign: I'll let Schumer speak for that.

We have some tough races out there, obviously. Colorado, Bob Shaffer is doing a phenomenal job out there, he is, and I expect him to win. And a little tougher race for us is going to be New Mexico, but we have two really good candidates running down there, but they have a good candidate running. He's an ultra-liberal Udall. Udalls are pretty left-wing, but you know it'll be a good contrast down there, but you know, it's certainly a swing state, a tougher state, kind of a purple state.

They have a little advantage because we have a primary and they don't. At the same time, that doesn't mean you can't win. We saw that in Virginia. Virginia had a primary, George Allen didn't. He lost. So it still depends on who runs the good races.

RCP: At the end of the night on Election Day, what do you see as the best and worst-case scenarios?

Ensign: I think we can actually sneak back into the majority on our best case scenario. I think we could get to 51. I think worst case scenario -- 45, 46. That would be a real bad night, if we have a real bad night, we're 45. A good night for us staying 48, 49, that's a real good night. A great night is 51.