Senate Democrats' campaign chief urged patience with the party's recruitment progress as Republicans picked up a top challenger this week in a key race.
“Everyone wants the races to be jelled today,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet told reporters in a Wednesday briefing after the quarter-mark of the cycle. “They’re not, and they never are.”
Congress may be preparing for a monthlong recess, but the 2014 battle for the Senate is only gaining steam. Fifteen months removed from the midterm elections, both Senate campaign committees are still deep in the recruitment phase of cycle.
But with Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton expected to announce a challenge to Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor next week, Republicans are moving closer to having recruits in each of their top pickup opportunities. The outliers fall in North Carolina, where the GOP field could still expand, and Montana. The GOP also lacks challengers in the swing states of New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia, where Democratic incumbents are favored.
“This is the hand we were dealt," Bennet said of the challenging map.
Thanks to retirements, Democrats face recruitment challenges for their three most vulnerable open seats in Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota. Republicans have top-tier recruits in the latter two and are awaiting a decision from Rep. Steve Daines of Montana, who would likely give the GOP the edge there.
At this point last cycle, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., was still three months away from entering an open-seat race that appeared unwinnable for Democrats. Asked if there were any star recruits such as Heitkamp in those three open seats, Bennet replied, “Yes.”
“I wouldn’t say slowly, but surely we are filling out our roster, and we’re going to continue to work to do that in Montana and South Dakota and West Virginia,” Bennet said.
Despite a favorable map being played out largely on Democratic turf for the second straight cycle, the GOP doesn't have a large margin of error in its quest for a net gain of six seats. If Republicans pick up seats in those three open seats, they would still need three more for the majority.
The options to get there lie with challenges to Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Pryor, each of whom is sitting on a sizable war chest. Then there are the open seats in Iowa, where the GOP nominee may be decided in a convention, and Michigan, where Rep. Dave Camp is now considering a bid but likely to face a spirited primary.
Competitive GOP primaries in several states make it difficult to handicap the map at this point in the cycle. That includes the only two races where Republicans are playing defense.
For a realistic chance at the majority, Republicans also must hold the seats of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, where an unpredictable primary field continues to expand. McConnell is facing a primary challenge from Louisville investment executive Matt Bevin and a Democratic opponent in Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
In a statement to CQ Roll Call, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran said the majority is in play thanks to the party's recruitment in competitive states.
"There's a lot of hard work to be done, but we feel very comfortable about the progression of the map in our favor and the quality of Republican candidates expressing an interest in running in key states," Moran said. "The majority is in play, which is a good thing for Americans who seek a functional Senate that will focus on the issues that matter most to middle-class families and workers."