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Senate Race Recruitment: Too Early to Fail?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Barrow’s decision not to run for Senate may give Democrats some headaches as they prepare for the 2014 elections.

Despite the numerous holes on the Senate race recruitment map, a look back at last cycle offers some context for how far there still is to go until the 2014 primaries.

Georgia Rep. John Barrow’s decision on Tuesday to forgo a Senate campaign immediately raised concerns about whether Democrats can compete in the party’s top pickup opportunity, let alone less competitive races in Kentucky and Maine. Likewise, a plethora of top Republicans recently passed on the open Senate race in Iowa, a top target of the national GOP.

But history shows it’s too early to declare recruitment failures for either party, according to a CQ Roll Call review of Senate candidate announcement dates from recent cycles.

“At this point in the cycle — where you’re not far off from having been in the recruiting phase for around six months — the expectation isn’t that you’ve filled every seat but that you’ve laid the groundwork to get your candidates in,” said J.B. Poersch, the former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Poersch said the parties have far different challenges, given the lopsided map. He said Democrats have the upper hand so far in recruiting, despite the recent retirement announcements in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.

The lack of a candidate in a particular race at this point doesn’t necessarily portend failure — especially while candidate quality remains the deciding factor in close contests.

For example, exactly two years ago today, Rep. Joe Donnelly entered the race for Indiana Senate as a long shot. At that time, five would-be candidates who are now freshman senators had not yet launched campaigns.

Also at this point last cycle, at least one eventual nominee in about half of the states hosting Senate contests had yet to start their campaigns. Some of the nominees were in noncompetitive states, such as New York. Others were in states where the quality of the recruit made the race competitive, such as Democrat Richard Carmona in Arizona.

The candidate recruitment process can last a long time, noted both Poersch and Rob Jesmer, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

That was the case for a couple of the most noteworthy candidates last cycle, who announced later than May 2011. That crop includes now-Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Angus King, I-Maine.

To be sure, Republicans have a greater recruitment challenge in 2014. The GOP is playing mostly offense on this cycle’s map, which means the party has far more holes to fill than Democrats.

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