February marks the true start of filing deadline season, making this as good a time as any to take a look at Senate recruiting and assess how each party has fared. Given the circumstances of this cycle, it’s probably not that surprising that Democrats have excelled while Republicans have struggled.
This wouldn’t be a very fair exercise without making some caveats. First, given that there are only eight GOP-held seats up this cycle, Democrats’ recruiting task has been considerably easier than that of Republicans. Not only has the NRSC and the GOP Senate leadership had to find candidates to run in at least a dozen potentially competitive Democratic-held seats, they also had to recruit candidates for their three open seats.
Second, if the map seems hospitable for Republicans given that President Trump carried 10 of the Democratic-held seats, the GOP has been recruiting against the tide of mid-term history in which the party in power nearly always loses seats and a political environment that is increasingly tilted against them. Trump is unpopular and Democrats have an advantage on the generic congressional ballot, although that lead has jumped around quite a bit in the past several weeks. These are hardly ideal conditions for recruiting. The most accomplished salesman can’t convince most people, and particularly politicians, to do what appears to be contrary to their long-term best interests. In short, Republicans have had a much more difficult recruiting task than their Democratic counterparts have faced.
Finally, the failure to convince a first-choice recruit to run doesn’t necessarily mean that a party’s chances of winning a seat become nil. When Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin first ran, they weren’t their party’s top recruits yet won seats anyway.
So how have the parties fared when it comes to recruiting in 2018?
Let’s start with Democrats. When the cycle began, it appeared that they would really only need to find first-tier recruits in Nevada and Arizona and that the remaining seats would be much longer shots. In June of last year, it became apparent that Democratic U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen would challenge GOP U.S. Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, the GOP’s most vulnerable seat. Check. In September, U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema announced that she would run against Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake in Arizona, Republicans’ second most vulnerable seat. Check. In October, Flake announced his retirement, creating an open seat and a more level playing field for Sinema. In both cases, Democrats have managed to keep potentially competitive challengers out of these primaries, allowing Rosen and Sinema to conserve resources for the general election and focus their efforts on Republicans.
After GOP U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in Tennessee announced his retirement in late September of 2017, Democrats saw another opportunity, albeit in a very tough state for them. And, there is probably only one Democrat with the experience to put the race in play – former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Bredesen announced his candidacy on December 6. Check.
Democrats have also worked to put very credible candidates in place in states that are longer shots for them, but that could become more competitive if the political environment starts to turn even more sour for Republicans. First among them is U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke in Texas against Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rourke announced his bid in March of last year. As of January 31, he had visited 205 of the state’s 254 counties, and raised nearly $4 million last year. Democratic strategists are also encouraged by recruits like Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould against GOP U.S. Sen. Debra Fischer in Nebraska, and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson in Utah.
If Democrats have fallen short in their recruitment efforts it is in Mississippi where they would like a strong candidate in place to take advantage of a potentially ugly GOP primary between incumbent Roger Wicker and state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Overall, Democrats have to be very happy with its class of recruits this cycle.
Republicans have faced a much more difficult task. Not only have they had to recruit more candidates, they can’t guarantee any of its first-choice recruits a clear primary field. For the sake of this exercise, we will look at recruiting in the 10 Democratic-held seats that Trump carried, plus Maine that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried by three points, and Minnesota, which Clinton carried by two points. Starting with West Virginia, a state Trump carried by 42 points, Republicans ended up with both of their top recruits, U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Both face millionaire former energy executive Don Blankenship in the primary. Either Jenkins or Morrisey can give Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin a tough race.
Republicans haven’t been as successful against Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, which Trump won by 36 points. The party’s first choice, U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, announced last month that he wouldn’t run, leaving them with state Sen. Tom Campbell.
Next is Montana (Trump +20 points) against Democrats U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. Republicans have a number of announced candidates, but none has become a clear frontrunner. The party’s first choice, former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, was out of the running early when Trump tapped him as his Secretary of the Interior. Like North Dakota, this has been a recruiting disappointment for Republicans.
Trump carried both Indiana and Missouri by 19 points. In Missouri, Republicans had hoped that U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner would challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, but Wagner declined to run, largely because of the potential candidacy of state Attorney General Josh Hawley. It wouldn’t be fair to call Hawley a second choice because once he became the clear frontrunner for the nomination he earned support from both the establishment and Trump Republicans. Republican strategists have become more concerned about Hawley in recent days after he reported raising under $1 million last quarter. At best, it appears that he isn’t putting in the time needed to raise the kind of money this race will require. At worst, some strategists are wondering whether Hawley is committed to the race.
Republicans knew that they would face a primary in Indiana for the right to challenge first-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, as neither U.S. Reps Luke Messer nor Todd Rokita was going to step aside in favor of the other. The primary has been complicated by the entrance of former state Rep. Mike Braun, who seems to be running to the right of both and has personal resources to fuel his campaign. Both Messer and Rokita posted dismal fundraising numbers for last quarter, raising less than $500,000 each. In fact, it seems that Republican Senate challengers had a tough quarter almost across the board, but that’s another column.
Trump carried Ohio, where Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown is seeking re-election, by eight points. Republicans didn’t really recruit here since state Treasurer Josh Mandel announced in November of 2016 that he wanted a rematch with Brown and quickly wrapped up enough support to dissuade any other serious Republican from running. Then Mandel dropped out of the race last month, leaving Republicans scrambling for a replacement. They convinced U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci to end his campaign for the gubernatorial nomination and switch to the Senate race. In many ways, Renacci is a better candidate than Mandel, but he has a lot of ground to make up.
Next up are four swing states. Trump carried Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a single point and Michigan by two tenths of a point. In Florida, Republicans are betting that Gov. Rick Scott will challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. All signs are pointing to a Scott bid, but he can afford – both literally and figuratively – to bide his time. Assuming Scott runs, this will mark Republicans’ biggest recruiting coup. If he doesn’t, it will be the party’s biggest lost opportunity.
In Pennsylvania, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta is the frontrunner for the nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. There was never an overwhelming first choice recruit here so it’s hard to look at Barletta as a distant runner up. But, he has come under criticism in recent days for being a low-energy candidate both on the campaign trail and in fundraising. It’s not clear just how vulnerable Casey is, but Republicans are going to need to step up their game here if they want to make this race competitive.
Like Pennsylvania, there was not an obvious first-choice recruit to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Republicans appear to have two candidates – management consultant Kevin Nicholson and state Sen. Leah Vukmir – running in what is becoming an increasingly divisive primary.
In Michigan, Republicans didn’t get their first choice – U.S. Rep. Fred Upton – against Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. They are now looking at a primary between two first-time candidates: national security consultant John James and economist and businessman Sandy Pensler. James has gotten strong reviews while Pensler has personal money to put into the contest. Whether either proves to be as strong Upton would have been remains to be seen.
In Minnesota, Republicans probably never had much hope of getting a strong candidate against Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is very popular with voters. But, a special election against appointed U.S. Sen. Tina Smith has given them another bite at the apple. Unfortunately, their top recruit – former Gov. Tim Pawlenty – has declined to run, leaving the GOP scrambling to find another competitive candidate.
And finally, Republican had hoped that Gov. Paul LePage would challenge U.S. Sen. Angus King. While LePage is controversial and polarizing, he has won two statewide races and has a committed base of support. Without LePage, Republicans don’t have much of a shot against King.
Overall, Republicans’ recruiting record is decidedly mixed. They haven’t gotten their first choices in many of the key races. In several cases, their second choices might prove to be strong candidates, but it is hard to ignore the reality that Republicans are looking at a slate of missed opportunities.