Will 2010 Haunt GOP?

Senate Recruiting Will Be Key

Posted December 8, 2008 at 6:30pm

At the dawn of the 2010 election cycle, opportunities abound for Senate Democrats to add to their 58-seat majority.

In Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania — even in Kansas, where they have not won a Senate

election since the 1930s — a combination of open seats, shaky Republican incumbents, top-flight potential Democratic candidates, or changing political dynamics guarantees that Democrats will be on offense in several states for the third straight cycle.

Republicans, on the other hand, could face a depressing rerun of 2008, when they only went on offense in one state — Louisiana — and lost a minimum of seven seats (with the outcome of the Minnesota race still up in the air).

“You can’t have a cycle like 2008, when you were only playing defense,” fretted one GOP strategist.

Even the most optimistic Republicans concede that they have only one obvious pickup opportunity in 2010: in Nevada, where Sen. Harry Reid (D) will face the voters in his swing state for the first time since becoming Majority Leader and being closely associated with the national Democratic agenda.

But even there, the GOP is facing some difficulty. Republicans’ preferred candidate, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, was indicted last week for allegedly mishandling state funds — a prosecution that Krolicki and his allies insist is politically motivated.

That’s why the first few months of the cycle are so critical for incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and his team. They’ll need to think outside the box and snag a few good recruits in order to build any kind of momentum for 2010. They’ll need to focus not just on states that traditionally vote Republican, but on states like Connecticut and Hawaii, where the right kind of challenger could exploit the weaknesses of Democratic incumbents who now appear invincible.

“Recruiting is clearly the No. 1 job of the committee,” said a Senate Republican leadership aide. “The map is challenging, but if you go through every state, there may be one or two places where you say, ‘If X runs, we’re going to be competitive.’”

In 2010, Republicans will be defending 19 seats, and Democrats will be defending at least 16 — including the seat of Vice President-elect Joseph Biden in Delaware. If Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is confirmed as secretary of State, her seat will be up as well — and there remains the chance that Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) could give up their seats in advance of possible gubernatorial bids in 2010.

It goes without saying that the better the recruiting class, the better the prospects for Republicans to hold their open seats and target Democratic seats. But there are also psychological reasons for trying to land the best recruits.

“To be successful in any cycle, you have to be on offense in places,” said a Washington, D.C.-based Republican operative. “Because if you’re on offense, your opponents are playing defense. Even if you don’t pick up seats, you make them spend money and resources.”

But where are the NRSC’s top recruiting opportunities — and what’s the pitch to possible candidates when the GOP is so deeply in the minority?

The Senate Republican leadership aide predicted that early legislative fights — particularly the likely Democratic attempt to make it easier for workers to unionize — will galvanize Republicans and conservatives who might still be dispirited from Election Day, and remind them why the GOP needs as many Senators as possible.

“It could shake the tree and be helpful for us,” the leadership aide said.

Still, the map continues to look difficult for the GOP. In Nevada, if Krolicki is unable to challenge Reid, outgoing Rep. Jon Porter may be the Republicans’ next choice.

“In January, I’ll take a look at the options that are out there,” Porter said Monday afternoon during a brief telephone interview.

But even though Porter is well-known and generally well-liked throughout the state, and even though he could raise money and campaign full time for the job now that he won’t be serving in Congress, he did just lose his re-election bid by 5 points. The state’s other Republican Congressman, Dean Heller, is also mentioned as a possible candidate for Senate. As a former Nevada secretary of State, he has won statewide office before. State Sen. Joe Heck (R) could also be a candidate.

The Republicans’ next best opportunity could be in Colorado, where Sen. Ken Salazar (D) will seek a second term. But Salazar is relatively popular, and Colorado has seen a huge Democratic surge in the past few cycles.

It’s one state where Republicans could stand to be creative on the recruiting front. None of the possible GOP challengers mentioned — outgoing Rep. Tom Tancredo, ex-Reps. Scott McInnis and Bob Beauprez, and former University of Denver President Marc Holtzman — inspire much enthusiasm. What’s more, Colorado is one of many states with Senate races where Republicans will also be looking to take on incumbent Democratic governors in 2010, further diluting the pool of potentially strong GOP challengers.

Despite its conservative ways, North Dakota continues to confound Republicans, electing an all-Democratic Congressional delegation. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) will be up for a fourth term, and Republicans will try to recruit Gov. John Hoeven (R) or former Gov. Ed Schafer (R), an outgoing secretary of Agriculture, once again. Neither has shown any inclination to run for the Senate in the past.

One Washington, D.C., GOP strategist noted that beyond Hoeven, six of North Dakota’s eight other statewide elected officers are Republicans, meaning the party does have a bench to draw from. But even candidates of that caliber have been hard-pressed to topple the state’s three Congressional Democrats in the past.

Meanwhile, Southern Democratic Senators are always potentially vulnerable depending on the tenor of the election cycle. But the lone Southern Democrat up in 2010, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), skated to re-election in 2004, a Republican year, and this year Republicans could not even find a sacrificial lamb to take on Sen. Mark Pryor (D).

Arkansas is another state where Republicans will be looking for a challenger to a popular governor, in this case Democrat Mike Beebe.

Indiana was, until this year, a Republican stronghold in national elections, but even then, Sen. Evan Bayh (D) remained quite popular. Republicans have no obvious challenger for 2010, but Bayh has made no secret of his national ambitions, and Hoosier State voters could express any lingering resentment at the polls.

Bayh’s father, former Sen. Birch Bayh (D), was ousted in 1980, four years after he unsuccessfully ran for president. Still, the younger Bayh had a whopping $10.7 million in his campaign account as of Sept. 30 thanks to his aborted White House bid — a daunting figure for any would-be challenger to contemplate.

In Wisconsin, Republicans have taken their whacks at Sen. Russ Feingold (D) before, and he has never won more than 55 percent of the vote. This cycle, the GOP may turn to Richard Graber, a wealthy attorney who is the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. Tim Michels, the businessman who was the GOP nominee in 2004, could also be in the mix.

Much as he is seen as a rising star on Capitol Hill, 38-year-old Rep. Paul Ryan (R) may be too conservative to win statewide in Wisconsin at the present time. Adding to Republicans’ woes, they will also be looking to field a strong candidate for governor in 2010, and Graber is seen as a possible candidate for that seat as well.

With Colorado, North Dakota, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Indiana seemingly long shots for the GOP, Republicans might next want to look at a quartet of unlikely states: Hawaii, Connecticut, California and New York.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a living legend in the Aloha State, is planning to run for a ninth term in 2010, when he will be 86 years old. Republicans don’t have much hope of capturing the seat — Inouye has never taken less than 57 percent of the vote — but Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is term limited in 2010. If she chooses to run for Senate, she could make Inouye and Democrats sweat, and would be poised to take advantage should the incumbent stumble politically or if his health should falter.

Republicans also have a popular governor in Connecticut, Jodi Rell. She is expected to seek re-election in 2010, but GOP Senate recruiters might try to persuade her to challenge Sen. Chris Dodd (D).

Dodd, the longest-serving Senator in Connecticut history, doesn’t appear to be in much obvious danger at the moment. But his presidential candidacy went nowhere in 2008. As chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, he has been front and center in the government bailouts for the financial industry and, potentially, the auto industry — measures that may be highly unpopular with voters come 2010. And he has been linked unfavorably in the headlines with the collapse of Countrywide Financial.

In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has never won re-election by stellar margins. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who is term limited in 2010, has not ruled out the possibility of challenging her, but that is seen as unlikely to happen.

The California GOP will also need a candidate for governor in 2010. Wealthy State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner is the early GOP favorite, but former corporate Chief Executive Officers Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are also reportedly looking at the gubernatorial race. If one of those businesswomen challenges Boxer instead, the Senate election could get very interesting very quickly. Small wonder Boxer had stockpiled $3.6 million as of Sept. 30.

In New York, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) seems unbeatable. But if Clinton becomes secretary of State, the person who is appointed to her seat will have to defend it in 2010. That’s one of the reasons why some Washington, D.C., Republicans hold out hope that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) can be persuaded to run — if Clinton’s appointed successor turns out to be a bust.

The New York GOP is at its lowest ebb in decades, however, and will also need a candidate for governor in two years. State Republicans could find themselves at odds with the NRSC if they are trying to persuade Giuliani to run for that post as well.

The outgoing team at the NRSC knows a thing or two about how devastating a lackluster recruiting cycle can be. At the start of the 2008 cycle, NRSC officials talked boldly of competing in a wide array of states — some that leaned Democratic, and some that were traditional Republican strongholds.

In the end, they could only watch in dismay as several highly touted recruits opted not to run. Outgoing NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) acknowledged at a recent news conference that if GOP recruiting had been stronger in 2008, things “could have been different.”

Rob Jesmer, the incoming NRSC executive director, said the new committee leaders are poised to absorb the lessons they’ve learned from their predecessors, and added that Ensign and his team “have been very gracious and helpful” to the newcomers.

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.