Seeking to buck the conventional wisdom that they have little chance to win back in 2004 the majority that they lost last cycle, Senate Democrats are aggressively recruiting a challenger to Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.).
Not only has the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sponsored a poll that the committee argues shows Bond’s weakness, but it is also working closely with the state party to lure a top-tier candidate to the race. So far, no one has taken the bait.
The committee’s effort to orchestrate a race against the three-term Missouri Senator reflects its overall philosophy to go on the offensive this cycle, according to DSCC Communications Director Michael Siegel.
“Across the board geographically, politically and financially we expect to be extremely competitive,” he said. “It is hard to imagine how any Republican candidate or incumbent could rest easy in the face of their party’s domestic record.”
Dan Allen, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, replied simply: “The Republican incumbents up this year are all in strong position as they head into their re-election.”
Some Democrats believe that the focus on Missouri is more the result of a diminished number of targets for the party in 2004.
“This race looks very good in comparison to the other races that are out there,” said one Democratic consultant. “Is he Rod Grams or Spence Abraham vulnerable? I don’t know.”
Former Sens. Grams (R-Minn.) and Abraham (R-Mich.) were first-termers who were both defeated in 2000 after a cycle of lackluster poll numbers. One Democratic strategist familiar with Missouri politics added that Bond “is no pushover” but “we think there is an opportunity there.”
Bond won his Senate seat in 1986 after serving two nonconsecutive terms as governor.
Fred Steeper, a pollster who has worked with Bond since 1972, dismissed the DSCC’s recent push as nothing more than “the type of tactics Senate committees use in trying to encourage people into a race.”
A current snapshot of the national Senate field bears out that Democrats don’t have many pick-up opportunities. Nineteen Democrats are up for re-election compared to 15 Republicans, and of the Republicans, only Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (Ill.) is seen as seriously endangered. Already five Democrats are competing for the right to face Fitzgerald in November. Other Republicans likely to see a serious challenge are Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Jim Bunning (Ky.).
For their part, Democrats face a number of unanswered questions about their incumbents. Sens. John Edwards (N.C.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) are both pursuing their party’s presidential nomination and may or may not wind up running for re-election; Sen. Fritz Hollings (S.C.) is publicly contemplating retirement, and Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) has already announced that he won’t run again.
Siegel argued that in four key 2004 states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia and South Carolina — Republicans are facing potentially divisive primaries.
“Republicans will be forced to spend money up front and expend political capital that could drain popularity and support,” he said.
Democrats have yet to recruit candidates into the Georgia, Florida or Pennsylvania races.
No candidate has stepped forward in Missouri either, though one top-tier recruit expressed heightened interest in the contest after seeing the recent DSCC-sponsored Mellman Group poll, which showed that only two in five voters would definitely vote to re-elect Bond.
“I was excited … that a poll had been done and had been released that showed that we had a strong chance to pick up a Senate seat in Missouri,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell (D).
Maxwell said he is at the “front end of any timeline” for making a decision on the race, although he has begun to speak with his family, party regulars and others outside the political establishment to gauge interest in his possible candidacy.
Both Maxwell and Bond are from Mexico, a town of just over 11,000 in central Missouri.
First elected to the state House in 1990 and the Senate in 1994, Maxwell won his current post in 2000 with 52 percent of the vote. He said he raised $2 million for that contest but estimated he would need roughly $8 million to challenge Bond.
“I know he is a well-entrenched insider in D.C. and he can flip a switch and raise a lot of money,” said Maxwell. He said the DSCC had yet to exert any “hard weight” on potential candidates, but he predicted that the poll results would change their tactics.
State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) was less impressed by the poll, reiterating that she had little interest in the Senate race. McCaskill continues to ponder a primary challenge to Gov. Bob Holden (D) in 2004. Despite her public refusals, several national Democrats said she has not totally ruled out the race.
“If [the Senate race] was the only 2004 race she was looking at, people would take her word for it, but she is thinking of primarying the governor,” said one Democratic consultant. “People are going to try to steer that itch to the Senate race.”
McCaskill served in the state House from 1982 to 1992 when she was elected Jackson County prosecutor. In 1998 she was elected state auditor and was re-elected in 2002.
One Republican strategist described the Democrats’ recruiting as “throwing as wide a net as possible and putting all kinds of bait in there.” Both state and national Democrats insist, however, that their current lack of a candidate matters little in their overall strategy.
“You are going to see someone come forth in the next month or so,” said Mike Kelley, a spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party.
Kelley suggested that Bond is considering retirement, pointing out that he ended 2002 with $667,000 in the bank after raising $81,000 in the final six months of the year. GOP sources argued that Bond raised large sums for the NRSC last cycle and has just now begun to prepare for his own re-election race.
“Kit Bond is running,” said a source familiar with the Senator. “He has privately told that to friends and supporters.”