Senate Recruiting Under the Microscope
The Hill newspaper yesterday declared that the National Republican Senatorial Committee is adrift -- trailing its Democratic counterpart in cash raised and unable to convince any top-tier candidates to run next year.
While we agree on the fundraising front -- and wrote as much recently -- The Fix believes that expecting the NRSC to have a full stable of candidates four months into the 2008 cycle is more than a bit premature. That's not to say that Senate Republicans are landing highly regarded candidates; rather, it's simply to note that Democrats are still knee-deep in the recruiting process as well, with few "A" candidates to brag about on their side of the ledger.
Moreover, the history of the past two election cycles shows that the field of Senate candidates is usually not settled until late in the off-year, if not well into the actual election year.
At this time in the 2006 cycle, just three of Democrats' top-tier candidates -- Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) -- were declared candidates. Two others -- Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) -- had declared by the end of May 2005. But other candidates who went on to win in '06, including Jim Webb (Va.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.), waited until late 2005 or even early 2006 before making clear that they would run.
Jump back an additional cycle to 2004, when Republicans had arguably their best recruiting class in decades. Three top-teir candidates had declared by May 2003 -- Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.). But Mel Martinez (Fla.) and John Thune (S.D.) didn't declare until January 2004, and Tom Coburn wasn't in the race until March 2004.
With that history in mind, let's take a look at the targets or potential targets for each party and where each side stands in the recruiting process:
COLORADO: Democrats are behind Rep. Mark Udall. We'll count that as a recruiting success for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but Udall made clear two years ago he was running for the Senate in 2008 and probably didn't need much convincing after the 2006 election results. Republicans have no one at the moment, but we hear former Rep. Bob Schaffer is all-but-announced. Opinions differ on Schaffer's strength as a candidate, but he is a former member of Congress who has run statewide in the recent past. That said, Republicans' alleged first choice -- former Rep. Scott McInnis -- got in and quickly out of this race.
LOUISIANA: This is one of the states where we think Republicans probably deserve more time before we can deem their recruiting failed. No, Rep. Charles Boustany isn't going to run, and national Republicans' first choice -- Rep. Richard Baker -- seems like a lost cause too. But remember that all of the focus in Louisiana at the moment is on the governor's race. If GOP Rep. Bobby Jindal wins the governor's mansion this fall -- as he is favored to do -- it could well kick start the party and encourage candidates on the fence to get in. If by the end of 2007 Republicans have no top-tier candidate ready to challenge Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), then they have truly failed.
MAINE: Democrats got their preferred candidate in Rep. Tom Allen (D). While Republicans argue that Allen is something short of a stellar candidate, he is still a member of Congress who is already in the race and raising money. A recruiting success for Democrats in a part of the country where Republicans are definitely in retreat.
MINNESOTA: Comedian Al Franken and wealthy attorney Mike Ciresi are in the race to challenge incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman (R). Franken has the name identification and fundraising prowess to make a serious run against Coleman, but there are concerns about how some of his past statements will play in Minnesota. Ciresi funded his own race in 2000 but lost the primary to another self-funder -- former Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.). Not a perfect situation but a good one for Democrats.
MONTANA: Republicans insist Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) remains in the mix to challenge Sen. Max Baucus (D). Rehberg raised a pittance in the first three months of 2007, but if he decided to run this would be a top target. For some reason, this race has the feeling of the 2006 North Dakota race, where after much consideration Gov. John Hoeven (R) decided not to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D). After Hoeven, there was no one else. Until Rehberg makes a final decision, this remains a key recruiting opportunity for Republicans.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: The jury remains out on this one. The current crop of Democratic candidates -- former congressional candidate Katrina Swett and Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand -- isn't overwhelming. But former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is considering the race seriously. Landing her would be a big win for the DSCC. Failing to convince Shaheen would be a major missed opportunity for the party.
OREGON: Rep. Peter DeFazio's "out-maybe-in-then-out" act over the last month handed Democrats their first major recruiting setback of the '08 cycle. Democrats are convinced either Rep. Earl Blumenauer or state Treasurer Randall Edwards will run and give Smith a serious race. Neither is their first choice, but in 2006 Rhode Island Sheldon Whitehouse became the preferred nominee only after Reps. Jim Langevin and Patrick Kennedy passed on the race.
SOUTH DAKOTA: It's tough to blame Republicans for their lack of a candidate at the moment. Sen. Tim Johnson has just left the hospital after months of recovery following brain surgery late last year. The race has been in a holding pattern ever since. Gov. Mike Rounds (R) remains interested IF the seat is open. But Johnson won't likely make a final decision about a reelection bid until the fall. And if he runs again, even the best Republican recruiters will struggle to find a serious challenge to him.
Upon review, Republicans so far don't have a single major success on their recruitment tote board. Democrats, however, can claim solid candidates in Colorado, Maine and Minnesota (although the national party had little hand in landing Udall and Franken/Ciresi).
The real test of who will win in the battle for top recruits will come when a few more of the Republican senators up for reelection in 2008 make final decision on whether to seek another term.
If Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) retires and Democrats lure former Gov. Mark Warner into the race, that would be a major recruiting victory. Same goes for Nebraska, where if Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) passes on a third term and Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (D) jumps in. And what about the candidate recruitment in New Mexico if Sen. Pete Domenici (R) passes on another term?
We won't get decisions from many of these incumbents until the summer or fall. It's only then that we can legitimately scan the full Senate playing field and make strong predictions about which party is in better shape.
May 3, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
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