updated 10/9/2006 6:18:40 PM ET 2006-10-09T22:18:40

In an unusual move, the Republican National Committee is investing heavily in television advertising in Senate races in Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri in what officials describe as a firewall strategy designed to limit Democratic gains in the Nov. 7 elections and maintain the GOP majority.

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The move reflects a desire on the part of Ken Mehlman, the Republican Party chairman, and other strategists to exercise more control over the drive to retain a majority, according to several Republican officials. They said the decision has caused friction with officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which historically has been the only party entity to run commercials on behalf of its candidates.

The move also raises questions about the priority assigned by the RNC to races in other states where Republicans are in jeopardy — Pennsylvania, Montana and Rhode Island among them.

Officials at both party committees said they were working together.

“We’ve anticipated a challenging cycle and have been working closely with the NRSC for the past year to strategically allocate our resources,” said Tracey Schmitt, spokeswoman for the RNC.

“We’ve been working as a team for well over a year in planning how we were going to approach these races on every level,” said Mark Stephens, executive director of the NRSC.

The RNC’s targeted races are Sen. Mike DeWine’s re-election effort in Ohio; Sen. Jim Talent’s bid for a new term in Missouri, and Bob Corker’s drive to hold the Tennessee seat of retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist.

It is not clear how they were chosen. All three races are close, according to public and private polls. They are among eight or nine competitive races around the country — most of them for seats currently in Republican hands — that will determine which party controls the Senate when it convenes in January.

The officials who described the firewall strategy did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Yet the move is evident in reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. They show the Republican National Committee is paying for polling and television advertising independently. By law, those involved are not permitted to coordinate their activities with the candidates or their campaigns. Coordination is permitted between the two independent groups, though, and Stephens said they share pollsters and ad-making firms.

According to the reports on file, the RNC has spent roughly $2.8 million to help DeWine in his race against Rep. Sherrod Brown and nearly $1 million so far in Tennessee, where Corker is running against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. The party has put about $150,000 into Talent’s race against Claire McCaskill .

Video: GOP tries to shake off Foley scandal The NRSC, chaired by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., has also invested heavily in advertising and related expenses in those races, spending about $2.4 million so far in Missouri, $3 million in Ohio and $1.5 million in Tennessee.

While Stephens and Schmitt stressed the cooperation between the two committees, neither had a ready explanation when asked why the RNC had decided to step out on its own when it could simply have transferred funds directly to the senatorial committee.

Nor was it clear why the RNC had decided to scrap the division of responsibilities in use as recently as this summer’s Rhode Island GOP senatorial primary. In that case, the RNC paid for get-out-the-vote operations, while the senatorial committee ran ads.

In the case of House campaigns, the RNC has not reported commissioning any polls or paying for any television advertising. Carl Forti, a spokesman for the House campaign committee, said he was not aware of any such effort.

The competitive situation is different in the Senate, though, where the GOP senatorial committee has been at a financial disadvantage with its Democratic counterpart in fundraising. In its most recent report, the National Republican Senatorial Committee said it had $18.6 million in the bank as of the end of August, compared to $29.8 million for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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