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Senate Race Recruitment: Too Early to Fail?

Despite the numerous holes on the Senate race recruitment map, a look back at last cycle offers some context for how far there still is to go until the 2014 primaries.

Georgia Rep. John Barrow’s decision on Tuesday to forgo a Senate campaign immediately raised concerns about whether Democrats can compete in the party’s top pickup opportunity, let alone less competitive races in Kentucky and Maine. Likewise, a plethora of top Republicans recently passed on the open Senate race in Iowa, a top target of the national GOP.

But history shows it’s too early to declare recruitment failures for either party, according to a CQ Roll Call review of Senate candidate announcement dates from recent cycles.

“At this point in the cycle — where you’re not far off from having been in the recruiting phase for around six months — the expectation isn’t that you’ve filled every seat but that you’ve laid the groundwork to get your candidates in,” said J.B. Poersch, the former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Poersch said the parties have far different challenges, given the lopsided map. He said Democrats have the upper hand so far in recruiting, despite the recent retirement announcements in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.

The lack of a candidate in a particular race at this point doesn’t necessarily portend failure — especially while candidate quality remains the deciding factor in close contests.

For example, exactly two years ago today, Rep. Joe Donnelly entered the race for Indiana Senate as a long shot. At that time, five would-be candidates who are now freshman senators had not yet launched campaigns.

Also at this point last cycle, at least one eventual nominee in about half of the states hosting Senate contests had yet to start their campaigns. Some of the nominees were in noncompetitive states, such as New York. Others were in states where the quality of the recruit made the race competitive, such as Democrat Richard Carmona in Arizona.

The candidate recruitment process can last a long time, noted both Poersch and Rob Jesmer, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

That was the case for a couple of the most noteworthy candidates last cycle, who announced later than May 2011. That crop includes now-Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Angus King, I-Maine.

To be sure, Republicans have a greater recruitment challenge in 2014. The GOP is playing mostly offense on this cycle’s map, which means the party has far more holes to fill than Democrats.

After a few potential candidates took a pass, the party is searching for top-tier talent in Iowa. Rep. Steve King said he won’t run, but a handful of potential lesser-known candidates are now openly considering the race. One, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, said Monday that he will enter the race next month.

The party is also waiting for candidates to step up in top targets such as Arkansas, where freshman Rep. Tom Cotton is a possibility, and Alaska, where Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and 2010 nominee Joe Miller are both likely to run.

Republicans are also still awaiting candidates for Democratic-held seats in North Carolina, Virginia, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Colorado. And the GOP’s leading contender in Michigan, Rep. Mike Rogers, was just floated to head up the FBI.

The GOP has received heat in the media recently, Jesmer said, but Democrats have plenty of work to do as well.

“From what I hear behind the scenes, [Senate Republicans are] being really aggressive,” Jesmer said. “They’re going to have good candidates in a lot of places, and people need to relax. This isn’t May of 2014.”

Democrats have few offensive opportunities and instead must focus on defense, especially in states President Barack Obama failed to carry in 2012.

Democrats are waiting on candidates in vulnerable seats the party is defending in West Virginia and South Dakota, though party operatives indicate they have solid candidates interested in running there.

The GOP has the opposite problem in Georgia, where three congressmen have entered the Senate race already and another, Rep. Tom Price, is expected to announce whether he will run this month. Democrats hope an expensive GOP primary will help them in the Peach State.

Both parties are taking a closer look at Montana now, after Democratic Sen. Max Baucus announced his retirement last month. Democrats hope former Gov. Brian Schweitzer runs, while the GOP field could grow now that the seat is open.

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