Jerry Moran has never been a big risk-taker. Known as a cautious, state-oriented legislator, the 59-year-old Republican senator from Kansas has been dogged by a reputation for indecisiveness over the years.
So when Moran volunteered to lead his party’s fight to take control of the U.S. Senate next year, his eagerness to tackle such a high-profile, high-pressure job ran against type.
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Now, in his new role as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Moran has stepped into the spotlight to make an uncharacteristic gamble: If the GOP can pick up six seats to regain the Senate majority for the first time since 2007, he’ll get credit for the victory. If Republicans fall short, he’ll take the brunt of the blame.
“I think it’s risky for anybody,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of The Cook Political Report in Washington. “I think it’s a hard, hard thing to do, and there are a lot of people who hope they figure it out after two cycles of losses.”
In 2010 and 2012, Republicans lost opportunities to gain Senate seats because of weak or poorly vetted candidates who’d won primaries by positioning themselves to the right of their competitors but couldn’t attract enough votes to win in the general election. More than once, impolitic remarks contributed to a candidate’s downfall, as when Todd Akin’s infamous comment about “legitimate rape” cost him the race against underdog incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Moran said the party – and his committee – had learned from its mistakes.
“There is something that happens when you don’t win elections, and that is that you figure out how to win them the next time,” Moran said.
More Senate Democrats are up for re-election or are retiring in 2014, giving Republicans a competitive edge that November.
As senatorial committee chairman, Moran has the tricky task of navigating between a very conservative primary electorate and a party that desperately wants to win control of the Senate. That means he must recruit and fund candidates who have broad enough appeal to win statewide races without alienating his party’s activist base, which scorns any interference by Washington in local politics.
“We don’t intend to be that heavy hand that would be resented by some,” Moran said.
“Most Republicans would dislike being told who they’re for, and would particularly dislike being told who they’re for by somebody from Washington, D.C.,” he said. “So that’s not the way we operate. But to sit down and have a dialogue, to bring people together, to have them discuss what needs to happen in their state, to be helpful in getting Republicans elected, that’s very important.”
There are groups within the party that see things differently or have different priorities on certain issues, Moran said. But those divisions take a back seat to the big-picture goal of electing more Republicans to the Senate, he said.
“I think there’s been a growing maturity to this process, in which there’s a greater consensus or a greater desire to come together and nominate good candidates who are electable,” he added.
Reaching consensus in a divided party isn’t always possible, however.
Already, some of Moran’s candidate endorsements are at odds with conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which have rejected the Senate candidacies of U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia and former Gov. Mike Rounds in South Dakota, complaining that the two politicians are “too liberal.” Rounds and Capito face conservative challengers.
On Tuesday, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz complicated what would have been an uncontested primary in Wyoming by announcing that she’d run for the Republican nomination against incumbent Sen. Michael Enzi.
Moran said his committee would back Enzi.
“I have had no conversation with Ms. Cheney, but I would say . . . our primary responsibility is to make certain that Republican incumbents are re-elected,” he said.
“This has to be a really hard thing for Moran because he doesn’t really want to piss off Cheney. Who does?” said Duffy, of The Cook Political Report. “On the other hand, he has an incumbent to protect.”
Sal Russo, a co-founder and the chief strategist of the Tea Party Express in Sacramento, Calif., said Moran was walking a fine line between pragmatism and meddling in the natural selection process of local politics.
“You want to encourage good candidates. . . . You certainly do want to do that, and I think we should do that, but you want to be really careful not to get caught up in that Washington mentality that we know best,” Russo said. “Primaries know better.”
When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, nobody in Washington thought that was a good idea, Russo said.
“He didn’t fit the model of what they thought they were looking for,” he said. “Just because you have a model doesn’t mean it works. These primaries and the battles in the states generally work out and the stronger and better candidate emerges, and you’re better off letting that happen.”
Regardless of the outcome of the primaries, anyone who receives the financial support of the Senate campaign committee must agree to be mentored by a current senator and attend candidate “boot camp,” where he or she will learn the latest political strategies and interview techniques, Moran said.
“In my own experience, I had to run for the House several times successfully, but a Senate race is different from a House race, so we have a number of House members who are and may be candidates,” Moran said. “We also have a number of folks who’ve never run for elective office and are or may be candidates, and we want to make sure they have the necessary training and skill sets to be great candidates.”
Boot camps most likely will include sessions on how to talk about sensitive topics that have tripped up some Republicans in the past, such as abortion and rape.
“It wouldn’t be just singled out to one issue, but candidates need to give thought to what their positions are, how they communicate that, what they say, what kind of questions reporters, interviewers may ask them,” Moran said. “ . . . But clearly we’ve seen examples of where how people talk about certain issues have been damaging to their campaigns.”
Moran said he wasn’t worried that this stint as a leader for the Republican establishment’s political machine would damage his conservative “Kansas common sense” reputation back home.
“I miss very few opportunities each week of spending time listening to Kansans,” he said. “And I want to make certain – it’s not just this NRSC job – I think Washington, D.C., is a place that can change you and have you think about things the way people in Washington, D.C., think – I want to make certain that doesn’t happen to me. It hasn’t happened to me.”