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Reruns for Senate

It may sound crazy, but the best way to go about winning a seat in the Senate may well be to lose a Senate race.

Thirteen current Senators lost their initial bids for the Senate, only to be elected later in their political careers. Now, Democrats Mark Warner (Va.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) are looking to follow that same journey.

“You never get into a race thinking you’re going to lose,” said former Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine (R), who lost to incumbent Sen. John Glenn (D) in 1992 in a state where a Senate loss is almost a credential.

“We don’t elect anyone to the Senate until they run statewide and lose,” added DeWine, who won an open seat in 1994.

In 1988, now-Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D), losing by 14 points. Voinovich went on to serve eight years as governor, and when Glenn retired in 1998, Voinovich won the open seat with 56 percent. (Glenn and Metzenbaum both lost Senate primaries — to each other — and Metzenbaum had also lost a general election.)

The stories and timelines vary from candidate to candidate and state to state, but a Senate loss, in general, can result in valuable name recognition and invaluable campaign experience. Sometimes it takes a competitive statewide run to adjust to the intense media scrutiny of a high-profile campaign.

“You learn more in defeat than in victory,” said Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith (R), who narrowly lost a January 1996 special election to now-Sen. Ron Wyden (D) in the race to replace GOP Sen. Bob Packwood.

Later that year, Oregon’s other Senator, Mark Hatfield (R), announced his retirement. Smith was hesitant to make another run, in part because he recalled campaigning the first time as a “very painful and inhumane process.” But Smith entered the race and won, and he now believes his initial run helped him.

“You make a better candidate and Senator [after a loss],” he said.

Smith is just one of four Senators currently serving with the man who defeated him the first time.

In Nevada, John Ensign (R) lost his 1998 challenge to Sen. Harry Reid (D) by 428 votes but came back two years later to win the open seat created by retiring Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D). Reid himself overcame an initial Senate loss, a 1974 defeat at the hands of Sen. Paul Laxalt (R), with his election in 1986.

In Nebraska, then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D) lost to Chuck Hagel (R) in 1996. Four years later, Nelson won the open seat of retiring Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) in the closest Senate race in state history.

“Losing is the best teacher of all,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who lost to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2002 by only 524 votes. Two years later, Thune knocked off Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in another extremely competitive and close race.

After his loss, Thune was enjoying his life outside of elected office (since he had given up his House seat to run against Johnson) and did not want to run again. “Running against incumbents back-to-back, you’d have to have a screw loose to do it,” Thune said. But he was eventually persuaded and ultimately successful.

Thune is one of two current Senators to avenge his initial Senate loss by defeating an incumbent. In 1974, Dick Lugar (R) lost his challenge to Sen. Birch Bayh (D) in Indiana, but he defeated the state’s other incumbent Senator, Vance Hartke (D), two years later. Shaheen is trying to follow in their footsteps in New Hampshire.

In 1996, Shaheen was elected the first female governor of New Hampshire, winning her first of three two-year terms. In 2002, Shaheen left her post to run for the Senate against Sen. Bob Smith (R). But then-Rep. John Sununu (R) unseated Smith in the primary, and Shaheen went on to lose to the Congressman 51 percent to 46 percent.

After her loss, Shaheen essentially retired from politics and took a job as the director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. She showed no interest in running for office again, but after numerous recruiting entreaties from Democrats in Washington, D.C., Shaheen decided to challenge Sununu in 2008.

But unlike Thune or the other dozen Members of the Senate who overcame their losses, Shaheen will have to defeat the same person who beat her the first time.

“Timing is everything,” Thune said, comparing his own two Senate runs. The same might be said for the Democrats and Shaheen in New Hampshire, where the national environment is considerably better for their party than it was six years ago.

Like Shaheen, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) also had six years between his Senate runs, but his story is more complicated. Stevens ran unsuccessfully in 1962, drawing 41 percent against Ernest Gruening (D). Six years later, Stevens ran again and lost in the Republican primary. But when Sen. E.L. Bartlett (D) died later that year, Stevens was appointed to the seat. He won the subsequent special election and six more full terms.

In 1976, now-Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) couldn’t get out of the Republican primary against John Heinz in an open-seat race, but was elected to the Senate four years later.

Other Senators had much longer spans of time between Senate bids.

Bob Corker first ran for the Senate in Tennessee in 1994, but he lost in the Republican primary to Bill Frist. When Frist retired in 2006 after two terms, Corker ran again. He won the competitive primary this time and went on to defeat then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) in the general election, more than a decade after his initial loss.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) had eight years between his initial loss in the 1996 Republican Senate primary and his election in 2004. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had a whopping 34 years between a Senate loss and his election last fall. Sanders ran unsuccessfully in both 1972 and 1974 under the Liberty Union Party banner.

In Maryland, Barbara Mikulski (D), then a Baltimore city councilwoman, took 43 percent against incumbent Sen. Charles Mathias (R) in 1974. A dozen years later when Mathias retired, Mikulski won his open seat after serving a decade in the House.

Similarly, Mark Warner lost his 1996 challenge to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), 53 percent to 47 percent, and he is now the leading candidate for the Republican’s open seat 12 years later. Instead of gaining some House experience in the meantime, Mark Warner served a term as the commonwealth’s governor (2001-2005) and is hoping to ride his popularity into the Senate.

Of course, losing a Senate race does not guarantee victory. Erskine Bowles (D) lost races in both 2002 and 2004 in North Carolina. Colorado Democrat Tom Strickland lost in 1996 and 2002. Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt (D) went home empty-handed in North Carolina in 1990 and 1996. Former Rep. Ed Bryant (Tenn.) couldn’t get out of Republican primaries in 2002 or 2006.

And then there is Alan Keyes (R), who has managed to lose two Senate races in Maryland (1988 and 1992) as well as one in Illinois (2004).