Cornyn's California Gamble

By Marc A. Thiessen
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In the past week the National Republican Senatorial Committee has poured $3 million into California, bringing to almost $8 million the NRSC's total investment in Carly Fiorina's effort to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer -- far more than the committee has spent in any other race in the country.

This massive investment in one of the bluest of blue states is a huge gamble. Republican candidates are hanging on to narrow leads in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado and Alaska, tied in Washington State, and slightly behind in West Virginia. Eight million dollars spread out over some of these tight contests in recent months could be the difference between victory and defeat for the GOP. By spending so much money in California, the NRSC is betting that Fiorina (who was closing in on Boxer in public polls over the weekend) can pull off a come-from-behind victory, while other GOP candidates have enough to cross the finish line without those vital resources.

Why is the NRSC taking such a big risk? The committee's internal polls show the California race to be even closer than the public polls suggest. If Fiorina narrowly lost and the NRSC had not invested in the race, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn and his team would face criticism for passing up the chance to knock off a vulnerable Democrat in a blue state. A win in California would also give the GOP a shot at taking back the Senate majority so the NRSC is effectively taking on added risk in other states to swing for the fences and go for to 51 seats on Election Day.

Moreover, the NRSC's California surge has forced the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to spend valuable resources defending Boxer's seat. After the NRSC announced its $3 million ad buy for Fiorina last week, the DSCC went on the air in California with $4 million in new ads to counter the NRSC's assault. That is $4 million the Democrats are not spending in other toss-up races.

A win in California would also be a big boost to the NRSC. This has been a tough election cycle for the committee, which has seen three of its endorsed candidates (Charlie Crist, Arlen Specter and Lisa Murkowski) bolt to run as Democrats or independents. If the NRSC can help one of its star recruits pull off an upset in California, it would be a major success for the committee.

But this gamble comes at a cost. The NRSC's $8 million investment in California dwarfs its spending in any other state. By the time the election is over, the committee estimates it will have spent roughly $6 million in Colorado, $5.5 million in Pennsylvania, $5 million in Illinois, $5 million in Washington State, $3.2 million in West Virginia, $2.5 million in Kentucky, $2 million in Nevada, and $1 million in Alaska. The NRSC says these races are covered, but it is hard to argue that GOP candidates in these states could not have used more money in recent months -- not just for independent ads, but for staff and get-out-the-vote efforts on the ground. Campaign cash is a finite resource. The NRSC had designated $4 million for independent expenditures in Florida and another $2 million for Missouri. But when Marco Rubio and Roy Blunt opened wide leads, the committee was left with a windfall it could dedicate to other states. Much of that windfall went to California.

Tuesday's election may prove to be a tidal wave that sweeps Fiorina and other Republicans into office -- in which case spending $8 million in California will be seen as a wise, even visionary, decision. But if Tea Party favorites lose some close races, the Republican establishment could have a bigger problem on its hands than its failure to pull off an upset in the Golden State.

Tea Party supporters see the NRSC as an incumbent protection racket. The committee weighed in for incumbents in GOP primaries even when there were legitimate challengers. It sent its top lawyer to Alaska to help Lisa Murkowski during her primary re-count battle with Joe Miller. Even today its independent expenditure ads in Alaska attack Democrat Scott McAdams, not Murkowski -- the candidate who poses the greatest threat to the GOP nominee. (Indeed, one of the NRSC's ads does not even mention Miller.) And as Election Day approached, millions of NRSC dollars went to establishment favorite Fiorina rather than Tea Party-supported candidates in other states. If some of those insurgent candidates lose by razor-thin margins, Tea Party activists will be angry -- and the GOP establishment should brace itself for a backlash.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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