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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

  •   Freshman Hagel Takes On McConnell for Senate Campaign Job

    By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, November 25, 1998; Page A06

    Senate Republicans got their only post-election leadership fight yesterday as freshman Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) challenged Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) for chairmanship of their campaign committee, vowing to try to stamp out negative campaigning and put a "positive" focus on the GOP's message.

    With McConnell claiming more than enough votes to win a second term as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Hagel faces an uphill fight but said he is "within striking distance" of winning the votes of a majority of the 55 Senate Republicans.

    "One of the lessons learned from the 1998 elections is that we need to give the American people reasons to vote for Republican candidates, not just against Democrats," Hagel told a Capitol Hill news conference.

    Although he had been outspoken in his criticism of the GOP leadership in recent weeks, Hagel yesterday concentrated instead on his own platform for the campaign post. He called for a "strong, positive, issues-oriented agenda" and pledged to give candidates more autonomy and support, focus on raising "hard" money for their campaigns rather than "soft" money for negative ads and do more to recruit promising candidates.

    He was particularly scathing about "demonizing" ads. "This nonsense of savaging your opponent and making their noses grow long and their ears grow hairy and big, that's something my 6-year-old and 8-year-old find quite amusing. It's great theater but I don't know what it does to improve the culture of politics or governance or leadership in this country."

    Despite widespread grumbling about Republicans' failure to gain any Senate seats in the Nov. 3 elections, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and all other current members of the Senate GOP leadership -- except McConnell -- have escaped challenge in party caucuses scheduled for next Tuesday.

    This is in sharp contrast to the Republican leadership free-for-all in the House, which resulted in retirement of Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and defeat of two other GOP leaders, including Rep. John Linder (Ga.), chairman of the House GOP campaign committee. The Senate is nearly always slower than the House to boil over, and House Republicans' rage was exacerbated by the fact that they lost seats.

    But McConnell became a target both because of dissatisfaction in some quarters with the job he did this year and because of the importance of Senate races in 2000. With Republicans defending 19 seats, compared with 15 for the Democrats, some GOP senators have said privately they believe they could lose their majority if the next campaign plays out the way the last one did.

    McConnell issued no comment on Hagel's challenge but Mike Russell, campaign committee spokesman, said: "We feel confident about our vote count and we're sensing a lot of unease about the idea of turning this committee over to a two-year freshman in a cycle when our majority is on the line." Hagel was elected in 1996, McConnell in 1984.

    Lott, who had previously indicated he supports McConnell, said: "Given the challenge of the coming election cycle, it is critical that we elect a chairman . . . with the seasoned experience and proven skills to lead us to victory."

    While they have no leadership contests, Senate Democrats also have a problem filling their campaign leadership post but it is the opposite of the Republicans' dilemma: No one seems to want the job.

    Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.), currently co-chairman, is in line for the job but may not take it, especially if he does not get on the Senate Finance Committee, according to party sources. Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), following through on earlier pledges, has promised the finance slot to Sen. Charles S. Robb (Va.), who may face a tough fight for reelection in two years.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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