WASHINGTON (CNN) – Texas Sen. John Cornyn emphasized Republican fundraising and recruiting successes for the upcoming midterm elections, but cautioned his fellow GOP senators Tuesday that early retirements put them at a disadvantage in 2010.
"While we have the momentum on our side right now, it is also important to recognize that 2010 remains an uphill climb for us, as the aforementioned wave of early retirements left us defending six open Senate seats, compared to the Democrats' two," Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, wrote to 39 Republican senators in a new campaign strategy memo.
The memo, provided to CNN, was delivered to GOP senators on their first day back on Capitol Hill after spending the month listening to constituent concerns during the August congressional recess. The memo is intended to underscore positive political developments for the GOP in a number of key races, and also to stress that the deck that is stacked against Republicans in 2010.
"We have a very real opportunity to make gains in the Senate next year, but we must continue to offer our own positive agenda as an alternative to the Democrats' increasingly unpopular policies," Cornyn wrote. "If we are successful with this, we have a strong chance of exceeding the expectations set for us when the cycle began."
Specifically, Cornyn underscored in the memo GOP candidate recruitment, troubling polls for Democrats and primary challenges in eight separate Senate races, three of which are seats currently held by retiring Senate Republicans. He also singled out Kelly Ayotte and Carly Fiorina, as "two strong female candidates" who are considering Senate bids. Ayotte is looking at the open New Hampshire seat being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Judd Gregg, while Fiorina is considering challenging Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in California.
UPDATE: Eric Schultz, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, weighed in on Cornyn's memo Tuesday.
"While much has been made of Democrats enduring a tough August, an examination of the 2010 Senate map shows Republican candidates and incumbents in fact had a difficult month. Whether it was Charlie Crist taking heat for his cronyism, Carly Fiorina under fire for illegally selling printers to Iran, or Roy Blunt facing foul comments from his own chairman, Republicans faced a series of tough setbacks and committed gaffes which could have lasting impact. In several states we see emerging primary battles between candidates vying to be the true social conservative. In other states, we see a grassroots backlash against the insider candidate as designated by Republicans in Washington. Two of their acclaimed recruits, Kelly Ayotte and Carly Fiorina, stumbled coming out of the gate, and despite powerful establishment support, Republican candidates in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri face declared primary opponents."
Full text of the NRSC memo sent Tuesday to Republican senators:
To: Republican Senators
From: John Cornyn, NRSC Chairman
Date: September 8, 2009
Re: A Post-Recess Update On The 2010 Elections
With summer recess in the rearview mirror and a busy legislative session looming ahead of us, I want to quickly update you all about where we stand regarding the 2010 Senate elections, and where we intend to go during these next few months.
As you all know, 2010 began with more Republican incumbents facing re-election than Democrats and a wave of early retirements left us defending six open Senate seats, compared to the Democrats' two.
What a difference a couple of months makes.
August was nothing short of a disaster for our Democrat colleagues. They were either unaware or unprepared for the growing backlash against their big government, big spending policies. Whether it's their failed stimulus boondoggle, the federal government's takeover of two major domestic car companies, or their latest effort to pass a government-run health care bill, it's clear these issues touched a nerve with citizens across the country. The Democrats then compounded their errors by dismissing the legitimate concerns of their constituents, labeling the protests as somehow "un-American" or "not representative" of our country. In doing so, the Democrats forgot that it's Congress who works for the American people, and not the other way around.
President Obama is now attempting to press the reset button for the third time on the health care debate with his joint address to Congress this week. Republicans agree with the President that both parties need to work together to rein in out-of-control health care costs. We agree the status quo is unsustainable. But we do not agree that the way to solve that problem is to raise costs, destroy jobs, and put government bureaucrats in charge of decisions that should be made by patients and doctors. Judging by the reaction from citizens across the country this summer, the American people agree with us.
In fact, recent polls indicate both Obama and his Congressional allies are already paying the price for their unpopular health care initiatives. According to Gallup, President Obama's approval rating fell dramatically over the summer, from 64 percent on Memorial Day to 50 percent on Labor Day. Obama's job approval ratings have fallen more steeply than any other newly-elected president in modern history. Regarding health care specifically, Obama's approval rating has dropped six points since July to 40 percent. According to a recent CBS News poll, 47 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of health care.
Members of Congress have not escaped from the health care debacle unscathed. According to a recent Pew poll, Congress' approval rating has fallen to its lowest level in more than two decades, with 52 percent of Americans rating them unfavorably, which marks a 13-point drop since April. A Harris poll indicates an overwhelming 78 percent – nearly four in five Americans – view Congress unfavorably. Charlie Cook recently wrote that Congress' current poll numbers should "terrify" them, especially as they continue to lose support among the all-important independent voting bloc.
While we have the momentum on our side right now, it is also important to recognize that 2010 remains an uphill climb for us, as the aforementioned wave of early retirements left us defending six open Senate seats, compared to the Democrats' two.
Nonetheless, in recent months we have made important strides in both fundraising and candidate recruitment. We have had more than 60,000 new first-time donors, we have successfully paid off our committee's debt, and in July, we actually outraised the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). We remain committed to ensuring that all our GOP candidates have the necessary financial resources to compete in races across the country, and it's clear that more Americans are recognizing the stakes involved in next year's election.
In terms of specific races, some highlights from August include:
· In Illinois, the after effects of the Blagojevich scandal – combined with the presence of a strong GOP candidate in the form of Congressman Mark Kirk – have increased the likelihood of the once unthinkable: a Republican takeover of President Obama's former Senate seat in one of the nation's bluest states. Despite intense lobbying from the White House, the state's popular Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, opted against a Senate bid, dealing national Democrats a major recruiting blow in their effort to recover from the Blagojevich embarrassment.
· In Nevada, Majority Leader Harry Reid's absolutely abysmal approval rating among Silver State voters has left him extremely vulnerable to a GOP challenge. In fact, two public opinion polls released over the last couple weeks showed him losing to every potential Republican opponent.
· In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln's approval rating has dropped by double digits in the last five months to below the 40 percent mark, which is a perilous position for a two-term Senator 14 months from an election. Additionally, Republican state Senator Gilbert Baker officially announced his Senate candidacy last week, joining a field of formidable challengers in a state that voted for John McCain by 20 points last year.
· In Colorado, the problems continue to mount for the unelected and untested Michael Bennet. The Ritter-appointee's approval rating has consistently been mired in the low 30s throughout his tenure in the Senate, and his chances of victory next year took a further hit with a primary challenge from the popular former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. All this comes as former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton seriously considers entering the race on the Republican side, joining two other strong challengers.
· In Ohio, the Democrat field remains very much in flux, as Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher continue to engage in a bitter primary battle trying to "out liberal" each other in a state where Obama's approval rating now sits below the 50 percent mark.
· In Pennsylvania, recent polls show Pat Toomey running neck-in-neck with Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter. Specter, of course, famously switched political parties to avoid a primary challenge from his right, only to be welcomed to the Democrat Party with a primary challenge from the left in the form of Congressman Joe Sestak.
· In Kentucky, Secretary of State Trey Grayson is leading both his potential Democrat opponents, who are locked in a contentious primary fight of their own. According to a poll released last week, Grayson bests Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo by a margin of 45 to 41 percent, while topping Attorney General Jack Conway 46 to 40 percent.
· In Missouri, Roy Blunt outraised his Democrat opponent in the second quarter and while he spent August meeting with constituents and attending more than 50 events across the state, his opponent spent the month hiding from voters and has still yet to weigh in publicly on the health care debate.
Additionally, two strong female candidates – Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Carly Fiorina in California – continue to seriously consider bids of their own, and both poll closely with their respective Democrat opponents without having formally entered their races.
In closing, while the overall political climate has improved markedly for Republicans since January, the election is still 14 months away, which is a lifetime in politics. We have a very real opportunity to make gains in the Senate next year, but we must continue to offer our own positive agenda as an alternative to the Democrats' increasingly unpopular policies. If we are successful with this, we have a strong chance of exceeding the expectations set for us when the cycle began.
Follow Mark Preston on Twitter (@prestoncnn)