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DSCC: Good Week, Tough Road Ahead

Senate Democrats have posted their best week of the 2004 cycle, as former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) pulled the trigger on a challenge to appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) officially entered the Pennsylvania Senate race.

Those two decisions left Democratic operatives crowing that they had seized the momentum from Republicans, who have not yet replicated the star power of their 2002 recruiting class.

“We are going to have a good cycle,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.). “There is more that needs to be done.”

Corzine’s pragmatic approach reflects that aside from Alaska and Pennsylvania — neither of which are slam dunks for Democrats — and an open-seat race in Illinois, Democrats have few obvious targets and remain likely to be forced to play defense nationally and will be hard-pressed to hold a number of their own seats.

“Neither side is where they would like to be at this point, but neither side is totally displeased with where they are,” said another Democratic consultant.

Both parties have had their share of successes and failures in the first half of the year.

Republicans were unable to lure former Govs. Jim Edgar (R-Ill.) and Ed Schafer

(R-N.D.) into races for Democratic seats, and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez (R) turned down a chance to run for Senate in Florida.

But GOP Rep. Richard Burr is running strong — and so far unopposed — in North Carolina, where Sen. John Edwards (D) is seeking the presidency and has made no decision about attempting to return to the Senate. In both Georgia, where Sen. Zell Miller (D) is leaving, and South Carolina, where it appears increasingly likely that Sen. Fritz Hollings (D) will retire, Republicans have several strong candidates and Democrats are on their heels.

Dan Allen, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the organization is “encouraged by our recruiting thus far, especially down South.”

Allen noted that in addition to the open seats, Republicans are also targeting Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle (S.D.), Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Harry Reid (Nev.).

The NRSC’s efforts this cycle are dimmed slightly by the quality of candidates they assembled in 2002. Two former presidential candidates, two near-miss gubernatorial nominees and a well-funded and well-known House Member helped make up one of the strongest slates of candidates either party has seen in recent memory.

“Recruiting this cycle has been slower,” acknowledged one GOP strategist.

On the Democratic side, the DSCC was unable to convince Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox or Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor to enter the open-seat race; Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell turned down their entreaties in Missouri.

Knowles is clearly their biggest “get” so far this cycle. Elected twice as the governor of the Last Frontier, Democrats believe Knowles has the crossover appeal necessary to win in the Republican-leaning state.

Murkowski was appointed to her current position late last year by her father, former Sen. and current Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), another issue Democrats hope to take advantage of next fall.

In Pennsylvania, Hoeffel is more of a long-shot, having only been elected twice to a Philadelphia-area district. Hoeffel does bring solid fundraising credentials, however, and has shown an ability to win in a swing district.

Democrats’ best chance in the Keystone State would come if Rep. Pat Toomey was able to knock off Sen. Arlen Specter in an April 27 Republican primary, a scenario that right now seems somewhat far-fetched.

A look at the raw numbers shows the playing field favoring Republicans; 15 GOP incumbents are up for re-election in 2004, while Democrats have 19 seats to defend.

The prospect of as many as five retirements only complicates the party’s hopes of returning to the majority.

Miller, Hollings and John Breaux (D-La.) have refused to comment definitively on their political future, while Edwards and Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) are likewise noncommittal about how their presidential aspirations will affect any future they might have in the Senate.

“The place where the [DSCC] is in the most perilous shape is in the first important step of recruiting, which is avoiding open seats,” said a Democratic consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The most high-profile recruiting struggle has occurred in the Georgia open seat.

Rep. Jim Marshall (D) is the prospect most often mentioned in recent days, although state Attorney Thurbert Baker, who is black, has not ruled out a run either. Some hold out hope for former Sen. Max Cleland (D) to make a return bid.

Corzine makes the point that because of the state’s “resign to run” law he “knew [recruiting] was going to be a slow process.”

Republicans have been unable to clear their own primary field, but they currently have Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins as well as wealthy businessman Herman Cain in the field.

The Georgia situation aside, several Democrats argued that in each of the other potential open seats they have strong candidates waiting in the wings if and when the seats come open.

In South Carolina, Democrats are growing increasingly certain that state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum will make the race, giving them a top-tier recruit in what will be one of their tougher holds.

Rep. Chris John (D) is seen as the heir apparent to the Democratic nomination if Breaux steps down; Erskine Bowles (D) is cast in a similar light in North Carolina if Edwards chooses not to run again.

Most national Democrats believe that Graham’s presidential bid will end far before the state’s filing deadline and he will run for re-election. If not, there are at least four candidates (including Reps. Peter Deutsch and Allen Boyd) ready to seek the seat.

The problem for Democrats, however, may not be in the quality of their potential candidates but in the financial resources these open seats require, taking much-needed resources from races against vulnerable GOP incumbents.

While the DSCC has done a surprisingly strong job on the fundraising front, they still trail their GOP counterparts.

Through June the NRSC had raised $14 million to the DSCC’s $10 million. The Republican Senate committee had $5 million in the bank to the DSCC’s $2 million.

Georgia and Florida are large states with expensive media markets that will take a major chunk out of the DSCC’s operating budget; if the North Carolina seat comes open that would be another expensive proposition.

Even if Democrats hold these seats, they will spend considerably more money to do so than if Miller, Graham and Edwards ran for re-election.

That could squeeze funds from challenger races against Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.), Kit Bond (Mo.) and Jim Bunning (Ky.), all three of whom Democrats believe can be beaten with the right candidate.

“There are plenty of places that it is not unreasonable that we ought to be competitive against Republican incumbents,” Corzine said.

A Democratic consultant said that if the DSCC can field serious challengers against two of those three Senators, the cycle’s recruiting would go from “good to great.”

A number of people interviewed for the story from both sides of the aisle noted that the influence the committees have on whether candidates run is largely overstated.

“People make these decisions based on personal feelings,” said a Democratic consultant.

“Somebody has got to want to run and play that role,” added a GOP operative.

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