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Lamenting Candidates Who Slipped the Hook

Like fishermen — or hopeless romantics — Senate campaign recruiters are forever lamenting the ones that got away. And every election cycle, the prized catches that slipped off the hook almost certainly could have had some bearing on the final election results.

By most accounts — the National Republican Senatorial Committee among the dissenters — Senate Democrats are poised to pick up seats on Election Day 2008. Looking at the playing field today, they have seven very legitimate targets — open seats in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia, plus Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.).

Some Democratic operatives — who, like boastful fishermen, are full of hyperbole — even insist that they will be able to put the political career of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in jeopardy by next year. And Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), they point out, may yet end up imploding.

But what if ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) hadn’t recently decided against trying to get his old job back? What if wealthy trial attorney Mikal Watts (D) hadn’t abruptly ended his Senate bid in Texas in mid-October? Senate Democrats would be enjoying an even better cycle than they are now.

And what if the Democrats had recruited the popular governors of Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming into Senate races this cycle?

What if Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks (D) and former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore (D) had decided to run for Senate? Giddy Democrats wouldn’t just be talking about attaining a workable majority in the Senate — they’d be closing in on a potential veto-proof majority.

By contrast, Senate Republicans have had a very quiet year on the recruiting front.

By their own admission, they have only one real target this cycle — Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — and they are almost certain to get state Treasurer John Kennedy, who was a Democrat until earlier this fall, to challenge her. If Gov. Mike Rounds (R) decides to run for Senate in South Dakota — a dim prospect at this point, unless Sen. Tim Johnson (D) reverses course and retires — that will be a competitive race.

Things weren’t so bleak for the Senate GOP at the start of the cycle, as Republicans talked boldly of putting up strong challenges in Iowa, Montana and Arkansas — states carried by President Bush in 2004 — and even in Michigan. Those candidates never materialized.

Of course, even a successful recruiting cycle doesn’t automatically translate into electoral success. In 2004, Democrats found the best possible candidates for open-seat races in Florida, Oklahoma, Louisiana and the Carolinas, and they all lost. They also persuaded former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) to challenge Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in Alaska, and he lost, too.

Sometimes, recruiting failures might have changed the course of history. If Republicans had better success in Illinois in 2004, we would not be talking about Barack Obama, Superstar, today. If North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) had challenged Sen. Kent Conrad (D) last year and won, Republicans would have kept their majority in the Senate.

Like his predecessor, former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer (R) — whose aversion to Washington, D.C., can’t be that strong, since he just accepted Bush’s appointment to become secretary of Agriculture — Hoeven is one of those figures that Senate recruiters are always trying to woo, cycle after cycle, but who never makes the leap. The classic example is former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean (R), whom Republicans have been trying to get to run for Senate for decades.

In 2006, a Tom Kean did finally run for Senate — state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R), the former governor’s son, that is. He lost by 9 points.

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