Senate GOP Campaign Committee Targets Harry Reid

Even in a year where many of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents are Republicans, the NRSC thinks the minority leader faces the greatest risk.

Republicans don't have much time to revel in their new Senate majority. After taking advantage of a 2014 map that included seven Democratic-held seats in red states, the GOP now must defend six seats in states President Obama won twice. And they must do so in a presidential year, when turnout is younger, more diverse, and altogether more favorable to Democrats.

Kevin McLaughlin, the National Republican Senatorial Committee's new deputy executive director, knows many of the lessons learned in 2014 just won't apply in 2016.

He sat down with National Journal to talk about the coming battle for the Senate majority, why Republicans are vowing not to repeat the mistakes Democrats made in 2014, and how Obamacare will remain relevant even six years after its passage. What follows is a transcript edited for length and clarity.

You and Ward Baker, the executive director of the NRSC, return to the committee this cycle after a successful 2014. Will you run things differently?

"We're throwing everything out. What worked last cycle worked last cycle. This is new cycle, there are new races, there are new challenges. It's a presidential year. We can't rest on our laurels and say this worked in 2014 so it will work in 2015 or 2016. That would be asinine. That's what Democrats did in 2014.

Will it be different to work mostly with incumbents instead of recruiting candidates from outside the Senate?

Of course it is. But at the same time, the fundamentals are the same. This isn't brain surgery, thank God.

Will an improving economy help your incumbents make the case they deserve to be re-elected?

Listen, I'm not necessarily going to concede the economy is good per se. What's different in a Senate race versus a presidential race is that these local issues matter ... People want to see the Senate actually accomplishing things. And so I think the most important thing is that you see activity and these guys taking up issues and having something to say. The way the Senate was run in past was what did in Mark Begich and Kay Hagan and other folks. They had nothing to show for their time. Our guys are not going to be there and we're not going to let them be there.

How will you ensure that doesn't happen?

How about a vote on amendment? I'm really talking about really small, basic things. Mark Begich never, ever had a vote on amendment in his six years in Washington. Not one. How do you justify your existence to your electorate when you haven't introduced one amendment while you're there? That's his job.

There could be as many as a dozen serious presidential campaigns, each of which will hire top-tier operatives and staffers. Will it be a challenge to find good people to work on Senate campaigns?

In 2007, we were in similar situation. It was the like gold rush for Republican operatives, and I felt like every campaign right after November of 2006 was staffing up really heavily. I don't get the same sense this time. The short answer is, yes, it will present challenges. But the longer answer is I've seen it a lot worse.

Why isn't it as bad this time around?

Quite candidly, look at how things turned out in 2007. What we learned in 2008 with staffing up really, really early is it's so expensive. In a world where there's competition for dollars "¦ you need to be lean and mean especially this far out from general election. I think that's the lesson learned from that cycle.

In 2016, a minority leader with popularity problems is up for re-election. Why will Harry Reid lose next year when Mitch McConnell didn't in 2014?

He is his own worst enemy. He says things like, "I am homesick for the Senate floor." The second thing is that it goes back to what I was talking about earlier, the fact that, he is the face of dysfunction in Washington. He was in 2014. And so a lot of the frustration the American people have with a lack of productivity in Washington is laid at his feet.

That's what's different than in 2010 for him. We're in a situation now where people are really, really frustrated with Washington. By and large, people blame the dysfunction on the US Senate. And Democrats were in charge when Harry Reid ran the Senate. That's what makes him more vulnerable.

Is he the GOP's top target next year?

He's the most vulnerable senator in the United States of America right now.

Six years after its passage, will Obamacare be an issue again in the upcoming election?

The lesson we learned in 2012 was you can't vomit Obamacare and think you're going to win. It needs to be more nuanced. What a lot of Republican candidates and communicators did better in 2014 and learned in 2012 was that Obamacare was the vehicle to a larger slate of issues, and that was ineffective government. They lied to you about Obamacare. Why wouldn't they be lying to you about "insert issue here"? They lost credibility. To a politician, credibility is everything.

Are you preparing to run candidates in Kentucky and Florida should Rand Paul and Marco Rubio seek the presidency?

As with everything, it'd be malpractice for us not to expect the best and prepare for the worst. Our understanding is they're running for reelection for United States Senate and we're operating under that premise.

What else will affect the 2016 Senate contests?

Democrats have $20.5 million in debt. That is a daunting place to start. We have $8.5 million in debt or so. I just feel like, financially, Senator Moran and Rob Collins left us in a much better spot than the DSCC is. The other thing is what effect is the [Democratic National Committee] going to have on this whole thing? Or should I say, the lack thereof? The Obama machine let that die on the vine. It's a shell. They have nothing. We have been really fortunate in the work they've done at the [Republican National Committee] in data especially and voter contact. We're in a really good spot at our national party as opposed to the Democrats. I honestly don't know how they're going to make up for that.