If the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had its way a decade ago, its current chairman probably wouldn’t be in the Senate today.
In the 2006 cycle, Democratic strategists in Washington preferred state Auditor John Morrison in the Montana Senate race, hoping to avoid a primary and keep the party focused on defeating Republican incumbent Conrad Burns. But state Sen. Jon Tester was undeterred by national Democratic efforts to get him out of the race and even bragged about being opposed by the party establishment. Tester went on to win the primary and general elections, plus a close re-election six years later. He's now in charge of Democratic efforts to retake the Senate majority in 2016.
With that goal in mind, Tester’s committee is pursuing a strategy that had worked against him.
The DSCC already endorsed 73-year-old former Gov. Ted Strickland to challenge Republican Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio, even though 30-year-old Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld beat him into the race. It also officially backed former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s open seat, even though Rep. Dina Titus had not yet announced her plans.
The committee has also been complimentary of Democratic Reps. Patrick Murphy in Florida and Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, which are two crucial pickup opportunities, as well as California Attorney General Kamala Harris for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's open seat. But it stopped short of an endorsement in each state.
The DSCC didn’t officially endorse Morrison in 2006, but its commitment to avoiding a primary was not a secret. Then-Chairman Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., had early conversations with Tester about dropping out. At the time, Morrison was a statewide elected official while Tester was a state Senate president who planned to raise big money from a Pearl Jam concert in Big Sky Country. (Tester’s barber is the father of the band’s bassist.)
In the end, Tester’s determination was critical to Democrats winning the seat in Montana and recapturing the Senate. 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 and went on to defeat Burns 49 percent to 48 percent in a great Democratic year.
If Tester had dropped his bid, Democrats would likely have been stuck with Morrison as their nominee, and it’s not difficult to see 1 percent of voters being swayed to Burns. And if Burns had won re-election, Democrats would likely have fallen one seat short of recapturing the Senate.
So, why pick candidates in some races when the election is 18 months away?
At least two reasons are clear: Early endorsements are a nod to donors and boost fundraising, and they can serve as a deterrent to other potential candidates who could weaken the preferred choice through a contentious primary.
There is also bipartisan agreement that there are risks to inaction just as there are with action. While there is a chance that a presumptive nominee implodes, there is also a chance a flawed candidate wins the primary, or a nominee’s financial resources are so depleted that he or she is poorly positioned headed into the general election.
But even though Democrats try to avoid primaries like the plague, intraparty fights aren’t automatically debilitating . Candidates can hone their skills in the primary before stepping into the larger, general election spotlight.
Campaign committee chairmen don’t make unilateral decisions on which candidate to support. In 2006, for example, while Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and Gov. Brian Schweitzer were officially neutral in the Senate primary, they both privately encouraged Schumer to coax Tester out of the race, according to a veteran Democratic operative.
This cycle, Reid’s public preference for Cortez Masto was a factor in the committee’s decision to rally around her candidacy so quickly.
“Every state, every race and every candidate is different and we’re committed to doing what’s best to win each state,” DSCC Communications Director Justin Barasky said. Tester declined to be interviewed for the story.
It looks like Democratic hopes for retaking the majority will hinge on early bets on candidates in Nevada, Ohio, Illinois and Florida. Democrats need a net gain of five seats to regain the majority. They can control the Senate with a net gain of four seats if they hold the White House and the Democratic vice president becomes the tie-breaker.
Related: Why Primaries Aren’t All Bad Democrats Line Up Behind Ted Strickland in Ohio Primary (Updated) Life as Jon Tester’s Executive Assistant Exclusive: DSCC Chairman Makes Recruitment Pitch for 2016 Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report: 2016 Senate Overview (April 17, 2015) Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat Be the first to know about Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call race rating changes with our new Roll Call politics app!