Gloating about and reporting on candidate recruitment has become commonplace in the election process. But too often, the grading and grandstanding is premature — and even completely wrong.
This cycle, Republicans are crowing after former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams declined to run for the Senate and freshman Rep. Cindy Axne decided to forgo a Senate run in Iowa. But their decisions don’t change the national dynamic (the GOP majority is still at risk) or the local dynamic (both of those races are still competitive). History tells us we have a long way to go before November 2020.
“The recruiting nightmare continues to embarrass national Republicans with this week possibly being one of the worst yet after major failures in Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, and Alaska,” according to a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee memo detailed in a May 30, 2013, story in The Hill, entitled, “DSCC hammers GOP on Senate ‘recruiting nightmare’ in 4 states.”
More than a year later, Republicans gained nine Senate seats (including all four of the states Democrats determined were failures) and recaptured the majority.
Neither party is going to gain nine Senate seats in 2020, but the 2014 cycle should make partisans and reporters more cautious about making broad declarations about the direction of the cycle or the impact of individual candidate announcements, especially more than a year before Election Day.
In Iowa, Republican excitement about the Democrats’ “failure” after Axne and former Gov. Tom Vilsack declined to run is remarkable considering that six years ago, Joni Ernst was an obscure state legislator who was considered a third-tier Senate candidate.
When Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz declined to run for Iowa’s open seat in May 2013, he was just the latest Republican to take a pass after GOP Rep. Tom Latham, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. Republicans were left with “a handful of relatively unknown potential and declared candidates,” the Sioux City Journal reported that month.
Ernst was mentioned in that pack and hadn’t officially announced yet, but she went on to navigate a competitive primary and win the general election by 6 points.
In Colorado, Rep. Cory Gardner had just announced he would not challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Udall when The Hill article was written. But Gardner changed his mind later in the cycle and ended up unseating the senator.
The same scenario could develop this cycle.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock are focused on presidential bids but could later shift to Senate bids and become credible candidates.
In North Carolina, state Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry was touted as a GOP recruitment failure in 2013. But one day after the Hill story was published, state House Speaker Thom Tillis jumped into the race and went on to win a competitive primary, ultimately defeating Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the general election.
And in Alaska, Democrats were ecstatic about Joe Miller filing to run again, considering he had defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a 2010 GOP primary. (Murkowski then ran a successful write-in campaign in the general.) Miller went on to receive 32 percent in the 2014 GOP primary and lose to Dan Sullivan, who didn’t officially announce his campaign until more than four months later. Sullivan later unseated Democratic incumbent Mark Begich by 2 points.
Part of the recent Republican excitement is a result of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s conversations with potential candidates. But optimism about GOP chances in those states after the potential candidates declined bids hinges on Schumer’s ability to identify the best possible candidate in the first place.
[Read: Inside Elections' guide to 2020 House and Senate races]
For example, in the 2006 cycle, Schumer tried to convince state Senate President Jon Tester to drop out of the Montana Senate race because Democrats in Washington preferred state Auditor John Morrison. Tester kept running anyway and Morrison’s campaign cratered after revelations of an extramarital affair and alleged conflicts of interest became a focus in the race. Tester won the primary 61 percent to 35 percent, defeated GOP Sen. Conrad Burns 49-48 percent in the general election, and has become one of the Democrats’ most resilient senators.
This cycle, in spite of Abrams national profile, she might not have been the Democrats’ best challenger against GOP incumbent David Perdue. Her close 2018 governor’s race and high profile has made her a polarizing figure and connected her to the national party in a way that could hinder her ability to win.
Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson — or another Democrat who has yet to declare — could be a better challenger precisely because she starts the race with less of a national image.
The bottom line is that Democrats didn’t need Abrams or Axne to make Georgia and Iowa competitive. Those states were already competitive because of their partisan makeup. The same thing goes for North Carolina and Colorado, where some initial Democrats took a pass.
Trying to prevent stories about candidate recruitment is futile, but the sooner everyone realizes that election cycles evolve, candidates change their minds, and more than one candidate can win in each state, the better off our collective election analysis will be.