Heller vs. Wicker: Battle for NRSC Chair Goes Down to Wire

Both GOP senators scramble for support ahead of Thursday's leadership elections.

After a hard-fought midterm campaign that signaled the end of many of their colleagues' careers, senators will huddle Thursday morning to reelect the same leadership teams they had in 2014 to lead the new Republican-controlled Congress.

But Thursday's leadership elections won't be entirely without drama, as Republicans plan to elect a new chairman of the Senate's top campaign arm, choosing between two candidates who are fighting hard for pledges from their colleagues.

Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Roger Wicker of Mississippi are both vying to head up the National Republican Senatorial Committee, ahead of what promises to be a difficult cycle for Republicans. Just 10 Democrats are up for reelection in 2016, while 24 Republicans will be on the ballot, many in blue and purple states.

The head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, will be chosen by leadership. Sens. Christopher Coons of Delaware and Jon Tester of Montana are the two front-runners for that position. Coons has been lobbying for the job for months, but Tester has recently emerged as a top pick for the position. The chairmanship, which will likely be selected Thursday, provides a seat at the leadership table but is often seen as a thankless job, "You'll know which one it is because he'll have a broken arm," Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont joked.

Heller and Wicker are running aggressive campaigns for the NRSC seat and lobbying their colleagues, but because the elections on Thursday will be conducted through a secret-ballot process, it's difficult to tell who is in the lead. Heller is running the most public campaign and didn't miss an opportunity early Wednesday morning to glad-hand with the incoming freshman class before their meeting with soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Neither McConnell nor Republican Whip John Cornyn, who twice headed the NRSC, has made an endorsement in the race.

Heller is very familiar with difficult reelection races in inhospitable states—the kind that many Republicans will face in 2016. Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are all up for reelection next cycle. And Sen. Marco Rubio could vacate his Florida seat to run for president.

Asked about his pitch to members on Wednesday, Heller told National Journal that he is highlighting his past political battles, particularly in a purple state. His message to 2016 candidates: I've been there.

"I've been in tough races. I've been in tough primaries. I've been in tough generals. And I'm the only one in this race who has been," Heller said. "So if they want someone who knows how difficult this next cycle is going to be, someone who won in a presidential cycle where the president won our state by 7 points and I still won, I think that's a pretty good pull. A pretty good answer for those who know they're going to have tough races, whether that's New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida—those are going to be tough races, and we need someone in there that has that kind of experience."

Heller's experience running in purple Nevada certainly has some pull with the political class in Washington. And it doesn't hurt that the party's main target in 2016 is Heller's home-state colleague, Harry Reid. Heller and other Republicans are urging Gov. Brian Sandoval to challenge Reid. (The party's other potential pickup is also in the West—Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet's seat in Colorado.)

But some Republican operatives and staffers have raised concerns about Heller's unwillingness to play a role in Reid's last reelection race. Heller didn't donate any money to Reid's 2010 challenger, Sharron Angle, or to the state party that year—even though his own reelection race in the House was an easy win.

Of course, Angle's campaign was doomed early on and many operatives say they don't blame Heller for not getting involved in the race. Whatever the reasons for his lack of engagement in 2010, Heller says any niceties between himself and Reid are long over.

"Harry spent $12 million against me, and I'm looking forward to returning the favor," he said.

Nevada holds another advantage for Heller in the NRSC race: It's also home to deep-pocketed GOP donors Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn. Adelson and his wife gave maximum donations to Heller's 2012 campaign. Heller called Adelson and Wynn "friends," but said that his connection to the two casino moguls was not a "major push" for his campaign. "[That's] part of the equation, but nowhere near the full picture," he said.

But there are concerns in some quarters about Heller's candidacy, including whom he would hire as staff for the NRSC. "Mike Slanker is a nonstarter for, I think, a lot of people," one Republican strategist who has worked on Senate campaigns said, referring to Heller's top political consultant. Slanker worked as the political director for the NRSC in 2008, alongside his wife, who was the committee's finance director. Both were hired by then-Chairman John Ensign and were subpoenaed in connection with his scandal.

"That is part of the past that they want to leave in the past. That is a member concern," the strategist said.

Another Senate Republican strategist defended the Slankers, noting that they helped Heller to overcome the "whole Reid operation" during his 2012 race. "I found them to be impressive," the strategist said, adding that the two would likely consult for the NRSC under a Heller chairmanship, but that they live in Nevada and are unlikely to be heavily involved in the operation.

"His campaign has never received the credit it probably should have for the job he did in 2012," the strategist continued. "That got overshadowed quite a bit by the losses in the other states in the presidential. But they did a really good job also broadening the Republican coalition, reaching out to Asians and Hispanics."

Wicker, by contrast, hasn't had to run a real race for his seat. And in deep-red Mississippi, he hasn't had to appeal to independent and Democratic voters to nearly the extent that Heller has—or that many of the party's 2016 incumbents will have to.

But Wicker hasn't always had it so easy, argued his predecessor and onetime employer, former Sen. Trent Lott. Wicker entered the House by winning a difficult, crowded contest for a seat that had been held by a Democrat for more than 50 years. He won a six-way primary, then bested another Republican in a runoff, and went on to beat the Democratic nominee by 30 points. It's been a while, Lott argued, but Wicker's still got it.

"Roger has been around a long time—and both as a staff member, congressman, senator—and he knows a lot of people ... on Capitol Hill and downtown. I think he's highly regarded," Lott said.

For his part, Wicker's pitch to colleagues is focused on experience. "I have a history of raising money, of traveling for the committee," he said in describing his pitch. "I was probably in 15 states during the last two years from Colorado and Arizona to New York and Ohio and Florida and Louisiana, Texas. So I'm not new to the exhausting process of traveling to fundraising events and also getting on the phone and persuading people to believe in us, enough to write a check for our candidates."

Though he called it a "friendly" race, there's at least one area where Wicker's political experience far outweighs Heller's: in Republican primaries. While Heller, like many of his colleagues, has stayed out of intra-party contests, Wicker got his hands dirty in fellow GOP Sen. Thad Cochran's primary in Mississippi this year.

Wicker's exhaustive work to help Cochran fend off a challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel impressed members and political operatives alike. He was "very aggressive in being helpful" to Cochran "right up to the end," Lott said. "On a Friday I was driving to the football game and my cell phone rang. ... It was Roger raising money for Thad."

"When I think of Wicker, I think of the fact that he was so involved in Senator Cochran's primary," Republican lobbyist David Morgenstern of the Podesta Group said. "Certainly for Republicans, the primaries are becoming just as important as the general election in terms of your ability to win races in November. And so I think that's sort of an experience that Senator Wicker was probably sharing with his colleagues, in terms of how hard he worked and how effectively he worked to help get Senator Cochran across the goal line. Because if he hadn't, potentially that race could have been in play."

And although Wicker hasn't faced any real challenges for his seat since entering Congress, the Mississippi Republican is a strong fundraiser. One Republican strategist said "K Street fears him," and lobbyists who have donated to the NRSC have urged the committee to let Wicker know that they donated. "Not Mitch McConnell. Not John Cornyn. Roger Wicker. It's crazy," the strategist said.

Several former staffers for both Wicker and Lott now work on K Street, Lott said. And his positions on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee haven't hurt either.

Like Heller, Wicker also has ties to at least one major GOP donor: Karl Rove, whose American Crossroads group and its affiliates will play a big role in 2016. The two met decades ago while the former Bush adviser was campaigning for chairman of the National College Republicans. He's also close to former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who appointed Wicker to the Senate and carries a lot of political weight with Republican donors and operatives nationwide. (Coincidentally, Heller was also appointed to the Senate.)

But as with Heller, there are concerns. Wicker can raise money at home and on K Street, but it's unclear what kind of appeal he would have in New York or Silicon Valley, where the party is working to expand its fundraising footprint. As for campaigning, Wicker's lack of political battle experience makes him a sort of unknown quantity. Given his few real races, Wicker doesn't have a very large political operation, and several strategists said there were questions about who exactly would serve on the NRSC under Wicker.

Lott said he was fond of both Wicker and Heller, noting that all three of them are fraternity brothers—former Sigma Nus. "Either one of these guys would be great, but I've got to stick by my homie," Lott said.

Wicker has reached out to Lott, who served in several leadership positions during his tenure in the Senate, for advice on the race. "I asked him quite frankly: Why in the world would you want that job?" Lott said. "It's a tough leadership position. "¦ It's really the only leadership position that I never wanted and never held."