Searching for a Dream Team

Senate Committees Shoot for the Best Early, But Reality Often Sets In Later in the Cycle

Posted January 14, 2005 at 5:50pm

In the early days of a new cycle, optimism runs rampant at the party campaign committees, as anyone and everyone seems within reach as a potential Senate candidate.

This year is no different.

Typically, each committee gets a few of its top choices while others take a pass, leaving party strategists to wonder what might have been if they could have fielded their strongest recruit in every targeted race.

On a rare occasion everything goes right for one side — which is what happened in 2002, when the National Republican Senatorial Committee managed to recruit its first-choice candidates in Missouri, South Dakota, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. All but one were victorious.

That recruitment effort led to a two-seat pickup by Republicans despite the fact that they had six more seats to defend than Democrats.

Mitch Bainwol, executive director at the NRSC in 2002, compared his role to being a general manager of a football team on draft day.

“You have to come up with a draft board, and at every position you want to go three deep,” he explained.

An Early Start

To find a candidate willing to take on the rigors of raising millions of dollars, expose themselves to streams of negative television ads and risk their political careers on a decidedly less-than-sure thing, however, is often a challenge for even the most persuasive of Senate committee chairmen or executive directors.

Bainwol said he and the NRSC chairman in 2002, Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, sought to make an early assessment of the “doability” factor in convincing ideal candidates to run.

Frist’s first call to former Rep. John Thune (S.D.) came less than a week after the 2000 presidential race ended — before he was even elected as NRSC chairman, according to Bainwol.

Then, as now, the most effective recruiting tool is usually a call from a high-ranking party official — ideally the president.

President Bush helped recruit Thune as well as former Rep. Jim Talent (Mo.) and former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman (Minn.) into races against Democratic incumbents.

Talent and Coleman won while Thune came up just short; the South Dakotan redeemed himself by ousting Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004.

The White House has been no less active in its recruitment efforts this cycle.

Already Bush has publicly urged Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) to take on freshman Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D), though Miller demurred last week.

Brian Jones, a spokesman at the Republican National Committee, said that no specific recruitment effort has yet been formulated.

“We believe that good policies make for good politics,” Jones said. “The president ran on big ideas, and if we can pass those ideas they will turn into good issues for our candidates.”

No Means No

Even calling in the president will not always sway an unwilling candidate, however.

At the start of the 2004 cycle, Senate Republicans repeatedly mentioned former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer (R) as the likely candidate against Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

Despite repeated entreaties, Schafer never expressed even the slightest interest in coming to Washington, D.C., preferring to remain in the private sector in North Dakota.

In a recent conversation about the Senate with Roll Call, Schafer, who has been mentioned again as a possible candidate in 2006, said: “I just don’t have any kind of interest in it. … I am an executive branch kind of guy.”

Other would-be candidates take a coyer route than that pursued by Schafer, keeping their names in the mix for months before deciding not to run.

Take for example, Senate Democrats’ on-again, off-again recruitment of outgoing Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) during the 2002 cycle.

Kitzhaber, who left office in 2002 after serving for eight years, was widely seen as the only Democratic candidate who could give Sen. Gordon Smith (R) a real race.

Kitzhaber equivocated repeatedly about a possible candidacy; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled out all the stops to get him into the race, including personal urgings from Daschle and a committee-sponsored poll matching Kitzhaber against Smith.

In the fall of 2001, Kitzhaber, while on a fishing trip, issued a one-sentence statement declaring that he would not run. Smith won a second term with 56 percent.

Looking Ahead

Any attempt to create a dream team of potential Senate candidates for the two parties in 2006 is fraught with peril.

Some of the names on Roll Call’s list, developed through conversations with consultants, party officials and independent reporting, are long shots who will never run due to various personal and political conflicts.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) is one such example.

Castle is widely seen as the only Republican who could defeat freshman Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) given his profile as a former two-term governor and a current statewide officeholder.

But because of the gentlemanly nature of politics in the First State, a Castle-Carper battle is a pipe dream for Republicans.

In fact, the politeness of politics in Delaware also victimized Castle in 2000. That cycle many Republican insiders were urging the Congressman to challenge then-Sen. Bill Roth in a GOP primary.

Castle refused to challenge the elderly Roth; Carper was the far more vigorous general election candidate and won a surprisingly easy 56 percent to 44 percent victory. Even so, Republicans do not seem bent on revenge.

“These guys go to church together, their kids go to school together,” one Republican consultant familiar with the Delaware politics explained. “It is a polite political atmosphere.”

Others on the list are not totally unreasonable — just unlikely.

Missouri state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) fits into that category; her term will be up in 2006, but she is more likely to try a rematch against Gov. Matt Blunt (R) in 2008 than attempt to unseat Talent, who is completing the remaining four years of the term Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) won posthumously.

Republican Reps. Heather Wilson (N.M.) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) are both seen as strong statewide candidates but are not likely to challenge entrenched Democratic incumbents this cycle, choosing instead to wait for an open-seat opportunity down the line.

And then there are the dream candidates who become reality.

The best chance of that scenario in 2006 is in Virginia, where Democrats are courting Gov. Mark Warner (D) to challenge Sen. George Allen (R).

Warner will be term-limited out of office in 2005 and has shown an interest in federal office before with his 1996 challenge to Sen. John Warner (R).

Mark Warner, who delivered his final state of the state speech last week, has not directly addressed the Senate speculation.

He is also mentioned as a 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, which may lead him to take a pass on challenging the popular Allen.