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Democrats' Window to Find Strong House Candidates Slowly Closing

Gardner entered the Colorado Senate race at the last minute in 2014, and has become the model for campaigns that wait longer than usual to launch. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When former Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller passed on a bid in the Silver State's 3rd District last week, it sent Democrats back to the drawing board again to find a nominee for this Tossup seat in 2016.  

Miller's decision to sit the race out was a disappointment for national Democrats, who thought his profile would make him a strong candidate  for this highly competitive seat. But it's indicative of a larger issue Democrats face this cycle: Recruiting House candidates in 2016 hasn't been as easy as many predicted two years ago.  

More than a year from Election Day, Democrats are without top-tier recruits in five of the 11 races rated Tossups  by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call. Democrats are also searching for strong recruits in at least five more of the 15 other districts rated as competitive in 2016.  

The holes in the roster contrast with the message former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel pushed last cycle. In a June 2013 interview with BuzzFeed, Israel said he spoke to a number of candidates in the early days of the 2014 cycle who were reluctant to run in a daunting midterm environment. Israel said candidates wanted to wait to run until 2016 — when presidential turnout and the promise of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the top of the ticket would make for a better Democratic year.  

“Whoever has the job of recruiting for the DCCC after I leave will not have a difficult job for as long as people believe Hillary Clinton is gonna be on the ballot,” Israel told BuzzFeed at the time .  

Among the seats Democrats must win in 2016 if they have any shot at chipping away at Republicans' 30-seat House majority — but where the party still doesn't have recruits — is upstate New York's 24th District. The Syracuse-based seat voted for President Barack Obama by a 16-point margin in 2012, making it one of the most Democratic districts held by a Republican in the country, but so far no candidate has emerged to take on freshman Republican Rep. John Katko.  

In California's 21st District, a seat Obama carried by an 11-point spread in 2012 but that is now held by two-term GOP Rep. David Valadao, Democrats are hunting for a stronger recruit after the current candidate posted a measly $24,000 fundraising haul in the second quarter. And in Iowa's 3rd District, a competitive seat held by freshman GOP Rep. David Young, Democrats are also without a recruit. Democratic former Gov. Chet Culver is mulling a run there, but it's unclear when or if he'll announce.  

Still, national Democrats say they are unconcerned about the current state of recruitment, noting there are potential recruits mulling bids behind the scenes in a number of districts — though they declined to name names or specify which seats.  

They also point to a number of districts where the party has secured top-tier challengers in top-target races in 2016. They include Colorado state Senate Minority Leader Morgan Carroll, who is challenging GOP Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado's competitive 6th District, and former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson, who is running against vulnerable GOP Rep. Dan Benishek in Michigan's 1st District. Yet multiple Democratic operatives cede it's typically harder to recruit a cycle after bruising losses. In 2014, Democrats saw a net loss of 13 seats.  

"I don’t think this is atypical, because if you look historically, when you're coming off a successful cycle ... you get a lot of candidates in early," said Travis Lowe, a Democratic consultant and former DCCC aide. "I think ... because we did not have a good year last year, it’s just slower."  

Others added that with presidential-year turnout, expected to benefit Democrats in 2016, candidates have a longer cushion of time to jump into races across the country.  

"You can spend fewer of your resources in mobilization and more on persuasion, and that’s a great benefit of a presidential cycle," said Achim Bergmann, a Democratic consultant .  

Democrats also point to Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who entered the Centennial State's Senate contest at almost the last possible moment and came out victorious.  

"Cory Gardner got in way late, and he wasn't successful at all," Lowe joked. "I don’t think it’s a big concern that they haven’t found folks yet. Getting into [the fourth quarter] and the even-year, the alarm will go off," if recruits haven't materialized, Lowe said.  

Democrats also add that Republicans are without candidates in a number of competitive seats Democrats currently hold. Most of those are in California, where vulnerable Democratic Reps. Ami Bera, Raul Ruiz and Scott Peters are still without strong challengers, despite their districts' competitive bents.  

But a month into the third quarter, a number of Democratic consultants say the window to find strong candidates is slowly closing.  

“House races are a little bit different, the time table is a little bit different," said Doug Thornell, a managing director at SKDKnickerbocker and former top aide at both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Committee. "Good candidates are going to emerge in the 3rd, maybe 4th quarter. Anytime after that you're tying your own hands."  

Related: Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.