The G.O.P.'s Firewall Strategy

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With less than four weeks to go until the midterm elections, Republicans and Democrats are shifting focus to a battle for the Senate, as two months of bad news has forced national G.O.P. strategists into an increasingly defensive stance. The Mark Foley scandal alone has tossed anywhere from two to six formerly safe Republican House seats into play and increased the likelihood of a Democratic takeover. That has allowed the Democrats to target Senate races with new funds, and forced Republicans to concentrate on defending their 10-seat majority there. "The Senate's a top priority, and you'll see a tremendous amount of resources garnered to protect the majority there," says one G.O.P. strategist familiar with the party's planning. Says a Democratic strategist, "More attention than ever is being directed to the Senate races."

In what it is privately calling it's "firewall" strategy, the Republican National Committee has recently spent close to $4 million in three crucial Senate races — Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee — in the hope of holding Democratic gains to a maximum of five seats. No new RNC money has gone to House races during that time. Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee last week decided to pour an additional $5 million into Senate races, compared with roughly $2 million in new get-out-the-vote funds being funneled through the House-focused Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "There is a real sense that retaking the Senate is within our grasp," says Stacie Paxton, spokeswoman for the DNC.

Perhaps. In private Republicans admit that at least three Senate seats — Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Montana — are likely to switch to the Democrats. The Foley scandal and bad news from Iraq has hurt Republican incumbent Mike DeWine in Ohio. But to make up the remaining two seats, Democrats need to win the toss-up race in Missouri and the open Republican seat in Tennessee, or stage a surprising win in Virginia. At the same time, two seats in Maryland and New Jersey are likely to go to Democrats but are still in play and must be defended. Says the G.O.P. strategist, "Despite some of the bad news, it still looks today like the G.O.P. would wind up holding the Senate."

Democrats in the Senate, meanwhile, got an unwelcome distraction this week when Senate minority leader Harry Reid, who would take charge of the Senate if Democrats win, found himself embroiled in a real estate scandal. On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Reid had failed properly to report a land deal in his home state of Nevada that nearly tripled his initial investment in six years. Reid has asked the Senate ethics committee for review.

The profit came out of an unusual collaboration with a former casino lawyer, Jay Brown. Reid and Brown initially bought adjoining plots in Las Vegas' booming suburbs in 1998. They transferred the land to a company called Patrick Lane in 2001; Reid's share was valued at the same amount, $400,000, as he had originally paid for the property. Three years later, he was paid $1.1 million when Patrick Lane sold the land to a shopping mall developer. Though Reid and Brown claim they were joint owners of the company, they say no documents exist to prove Reid's position in it, since it was an informal relationship based on the two men's 35-year friendship. Reid's office says the Senator's annual payments of real estate taxes are evidence of his continued interest in the company.

"Obviously, Republicans are in danger of losing the House and the Senate and are desperate to push out any story that takes their troubles off the front page," Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, said in a statement. "The fact is Senator Reid owned the land from 1998 to 2004 and he fully disclosed that fact. If the Ethics Committee requests a technical correction to Senator Reid's disclosure forms we are happy to provide one."