Interviewee: Jay Timmons
Current: President and CEO, National Association of Manufacturers (NAM)
In 2004: Executive Director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC)
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
August 12, 2014
This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.
Q: So what is the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and what did you do there in 2004?
TIMMONS: So the NRSC is responsible for helping to coordinate, if you will, the 33 Senate races on behalf of Republicans throughout the country from a national perspective. We assist the campaigns — we assisted the campaigns in some of their strategies and some of their fundraising tactics. Obviously, some campaigns needed help more than others. Incumbents tend to not need as much help as challengers or folks running for the open seat, and my role was to serve as executive director of the NRSC during the 2004 cycle, so I was brought in 2003 by George Allen, who was the senator from Virginia, chairman of the committee. I had been his chief of staff and he asked me to go over and run the committee.
Q: And how would you decide what races to invest [00:01:00] more heavily in; invest the resources you had that could be helpful?
TIMMONS: Yeah, so this year was particularly difficult for not only the NRSC but the Democratic Committee as well. All national political parties were coming to terms with a new law, the McCain-Feingold Law, and it was very restrictive on what political parties could do. It pretty much, right off the bat, cut out half of our resources by not allowing us to raise so-called “soft money.” We had to focus on hard money contributions.
Q: And the difference is?
TIMMONS: Well, the difference is $2,000 per person at the time, I believe $2,000 per person per election cycle —
Q: Is hard money.
TIMMONS: — versus — which is hard money — versus soft money, which is corporate contributions and large-scale contributions that could be used in different ways by the campaigns. And we lost the ability to do that, obviously, the soft money side of it, so we had to focus [00:02:00] only on hard money. So we were changing all of our tactics; we were changing all of our fundraising strategies to adapt to that, and that became pretty difficult at the beginning of the cycle because nobody knew what we were dealing with. And we had this potential of nu — I can’t remember the number, but numerous races that were open-seat races, challengers that had a great opportunity to beat incumbents. And so trying to figure out where to dedicate those resources at the beginning of the cycle was almost an impossible task, and in fact, as we started to go through the primary cycles, and we began to see who had a better chance than others. Unfortunately, for us — it turned out to be very fortunate in the end — but unfortunately at the time, we had a bounty of riches. We had a huge playing field and we weren’t sure where we were going to be able to effectively invest our resources. It turned out that either through luck or through skill, [00:03:00] I don’t know which it is, (laughter) we ended up winning 55 seats in the end, so the strategy turned out to be a good one, but quite frankly, just a little change in the political winds, it would have gone the other way.
Q: So staying with the money, overall, since you weren’t able to raise soft money, had to raise it through hard money, overall, how much did you have to spend, compared to, say, pre-McCain-Feingold?
TIMMONS: Yeah, I was trying to remember the number. I believe that pre-McCain-Feingold, it was over $100 million, and so our goal was half of that, or we assumed, I should say, we assumed we could raise half of that, and so we had a much higher goal in the end that we surpassed. I don’t remember what the exact number was. I don’t think we made it to the pre-McCain-Feingold numbers at that particular election cycle, but we came pretty close.
Q: And the Democratic equivalent is having to deal with the same challenge, right?
TIMMONS: Exactly. And their issue, of course, was [00:04:00] — they had a pro and a con. They had the ability to try to take control of the majority in the Senate, so that was the offensive message, but their defensive message was they were running against, at that time, a very popular president, in President George W. Bush, and they were running — they were trying to figure out how to deal with three wars that were going on in the world and how they were going to respond to that in a way that —
Q: Three wars?
TIMMONS: — didn’t look like they were questioning our troops or our commitment to ensuring that we weren’t terrorized as a nation.
Q: So Iraq, Afghanistan, and —
TIMMONS: And the War on Terror, in general.
Q: — and the War on Terror. In addition to money, what other resources did you have that would be of benefit to candidates?
TIMMONS: Well, I would say that if you were a candidate, you were looking specifically at money. [00:05:00] You were looking at two things. You were looking at coordinated expenses, which is set by the FEC, an amount that you can — the candidate can talk to the NRSC about how to spend it, what to spend it on, and that varies from state to state, based on population.
And then, there’s this other pot of money that exists that the committee decides what states to employ the resources in, so that comes in the form of independent expenditures. It was extraordinarily complicated that year. I think it’s been worked out since. And certainly court cases have helped settle the anti-freedom restrictions that were in McCain-Feingold. But at that time, I couldn’t talk to some of my own staff members about where the money was to go, or what it was to be used for. I could say we’re going to spend X amount of dollars in this state. I couldn’t say what it was going to be spent on. And I think various committees interpreted it different ways. Our committee [00:06:00] interpreted it very strictly. We were not going to do anything that would compromise the brand of the NRSC, and we weren’t going to do anything that would violate either the law as it was written, or the intent of the law. So there was a big firewall between myself and my political director that the two of us, and against those who were spending money on independent expe– spending the money that we allocated for independent expenditures in various states.
Another thing, you asked a question about what resources. So, that’s the biggest resource, but we were also able to help with strategic — strategy development. That happened in a few states, again, where there were challengers or there were candidates that were perhaps newer candidates, compared to some of our other states. We could also help direct resources into a state. We would have folks who would ask us well, what are the hot campaigns going on in the country, and we had regular briefings around town to talk about where — [00:07:00] you know, where Republicans had the best chance, and so a lot of resources would end up going to those states.