CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the NRSC's role in last year's Texas Senate primary. It remained neutral.
At the National Republican Senatorial Committee, times are tough. Conservatives, remembering the group's opposition to Marco Rubio, see it as meddlesome. The establishment, remembering its inability to squash the candidacies of Sharron Angle and Todd Akin, see it as weak-kneed. The criticism, however, is less damning than a quick glance at the Senate scoreboard: Despite back-to-back campaigns that should have put the GOP in charge of the chamber — or at least close to it — Democrats retain a comfortable majority.
So it was surprising that when Senate Republicans picked the NRSC's next leader, they settled on Jerry Moran. The junior senator from Kansas, elected to the upper chamber in 2010 after a 14-year career in the House, is hardly a political star like Rubio or Ohio's Rob Portman. Many Capitol Hill veterans and seasoned operatives say that other than his name, they know next to nothing about the 58-year-old lawmaker. (Reportedly, he was the only one to compete for the job inside the party's Senate caucus.) According to the search engine LexisNexis, which tracks media mentions, Moran has been written about only 12 percent as often as Mike Lee, the senator from Utah who arrived in the same class.
Political-committee chairmen don't need to be media darlings to do their job well, and Moran's allies say the NRSC could use his low-key demeanor and behind-the-scenes competence now more than ever. But at a time when the committee desperately needs to prove its relevance and declare its approach — will it weed out the long shots or let the base have its way? — it is being led by a mystery man. "When I read Jerry Moran's name, first I said, "˜Who?' " says one Republican consultant who has worked with the NRSC and requested anonymity to speak candidly. "It's kind of black-box time right now. We're not clear what's going to happen."
For Moran, who focused mostly on agriculture policy before shifting to the leadership position, there's no confusion. The senator is aware he's not well-known around town, he tells National Journal, but it doesn't bother him, and it won't hinder his efforts to elect Republicans. "I don't live and die on whether I receive significant media attention," Moran says. "Many people may seek the NRSC position to advance their own agenda, to advance their own future careers. That's not my motivation. [It's] to see if we can't get a Senate that functions and deals with the country's challenges — and that's more likely to happen with more Republicans in office."
The NRSC, under the leadership of John Cornyn in the last two cycles, struggled mightily to find its place in GOP primaries. It turned out to be either too aggressive (as in 2010, when it solidly backed Democrat-in-waiting Charlie Crist over Rubio) or too passive (as in 2012, when it failed to prevent the incendiary Akin from winning his primary in Missouri). Many GOP operatives are scrambling to learn more about Moran and looking for hints about how he plans to navigate that treacherous terrain.
Moran arrived with the tea-party wave in the 2010 midterms, but he's hardly proven to be a conservative firebrand in office. According to National Journal's 2012 vote ratings, he was the chamber's 29th-most-conservative member, putting him roughly in the middle of his GOP caucus. For now, the senator and his charges at the committee have put the word out that, if nothing else, they plan to change the often combative tone between the NRSC and candidate campaigns. Instead of telling local operations what to do, the committee wants a more cooperative relationship in which it spends as much time listening as issuing orders.
To that end, a staffer at the NRSC says the committee will use Kevin McLaughlin, a former Cornyn aide, as a de facto traveling press secretary. He'll rotate among GOP Senate campaigns, embedding with them to improve communication with Washington. And the committee may also offer to train all prospective candidates — not in the nation's capital, but in their home states.
As Moran puts it, he wants states to "reach a consensus" on a candidate before the committee steps in. But that's easier said than done. What, for example, does he plan to do about the GOP primary in Iowa, where Rep. Steve King would enter as the favorite but is seen as a general-election liability? Moran says this is a different kind of race than Georgia, which features so many Republican hopefuls (as many as five) that the committee would struggle to affect the race even if it wanted to. And, besides, he added, the Peach State's red hue — as opposed to the Hawkeye State's purple one — makes it a likely Republican keeper regardless of who wins. So will the NRSC intercede in Iowa? No, Moran says. "This is a decision to be made by folks in Iowa, not in Washington, D.C."
The Kansas lawmaker faces an array of other challenges, including assuring wary donors that the committee has learned from past mistakes and has updated its campaign technology. Moran must also balance a somewhat unusual leadership setup, in which quintessential D.C. insider Portman and conservative all-star Cruz serve as vice chairmen. The former is a deal-oriented centrist and the latter is a tea-party hero, suggesting they'll favor opposite tactics for the committee. An aide says the leaders meet weekly at NRSC headquarters, but the arrangement could be a recipe for acrimony. Until they find a groove, Republicans can only wonder which direction the committee will take. With another chairman in another era, there'd be no mystery.