BY PAUL BARTON
Enquirer Washington Bureau
-- Sen. Mitch McConnell on Tuesday strengthened his position as chief strategist for getting Republican Senate candidates elected, overwhelmingly winning a second term as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
Mr. McConnell, R-Ky., took the post with a 39-13 vote over Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska during a closed-door meeting of GOP senators. Three Republican members were absent.
"I think the vote speaks for itself; 39-13 is not exactly a cliffhanger," Mr. McConnell said.
During each two-year election cycle, the committee is in charge of helping candidates, primarily by raising money to help their campaigns. In the 1998 elections, Mr. McConnell presided over the spending of more than $57 million nationwide.
Mr. McConnell was the only member of the Senate GOP leadership to face a challenge as Republicans organized themselves for the 106th Congress, which begins in January.
Party members were disappointed with last month's election results, which showed the GOP failing to add to its 55-45 Senate majority over the Democrats.
Mr. Hagel continued to be critical.
"I think we can do this job of campaigning better," he said in a statement. "I think we should be in the business of inspiring and uplifting people. We should develop an alternative to the negative campaigning and all the nonsense that people are tired of in this country."
Despite Mr. Hagel's challenge, political analysts said, most party members and Senate members did not blame Mr. McConnell for the failure to gain ground.
"He made a major effort in a handful of seats where they thought they could turn the tide," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report. "I don't think the Republicans' falling short was McConnell's problem."
Instead, Mr. Rothenberg said, the GOP suffered from public rebellion against impeachment issues, a lack of agenda and a surprising Democratic turnout.
Mr. McConnell said he was not happy that Republicans managed only to maintain their 10-seat margin, but he said that was a better performance than the House GOP or Republican gubernatorial candidates turned in.
"I had hoped to do better than that," he said. "We did better than everybody else."
Immediately after the Nov. 3 election, critics wondered why Mr. McConnell didn't allocate more money to the California U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer and GOP challenger Matt Fong, won by Ms. Boxer.
There were also questions about whether he spent too much time and energy on electing Rep. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate, to the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Wendell Ford.
"I assume the ones that are complaining about that didn't hope that he lost," he said. "It's an absurd suggestion."
Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst with The Cook Political Report, said Mr. McConnell allocated funds where he thought the GOP could get the most return for its money.
Looking at it that way, she said, his allocation decisions "made a lot of sense."
Mr. McConnell, 56, has also had to contend with charges by public interest groups that it would be a conflict of interest for him to be chairman of the NRSC and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, a post he is in line to hold in the 106th Congress.
The Rules Committee has jurisdiction over campaign finance reform. Pro-reform groups have criticized the NRSC's aggressive solicitation of funds from major corporations and wealthy donors. Such contributions are unregulated and are referred to as "soft money."
Mr. Hagel had pledged to downgrade the use of soft money. The Nebraska senator also criticized NRSC tactics as too reliant on the "constant demonizing" of Democrats.
"Absolutely nothing inappropriate about it," Mr. McConnell said of his holding the two posts.