Is the 2014 Senate Race Recruitment Season Over?

Posted September 16, 2013 at 5:17pm

West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant’s anticipated entrance into an open-seat Senate race on Tuesday will bring the recruitment phase of next year’s competitive Senate landscape closer to its conclusion.

Senate Democrats, who can afford a loss of no more than five seats in the 2014 midterms to retain a majority, are on the brink of filling the remaining few gaps on the party’s roster of candidates. With Tennant in and Lt. Gov. John Walsh potentially running in Montana, the party has just one vulnerable seat left where it is still searching for a candidate: South Dakota.

Republicans are playing offense in all but two of the top races next year and therefore had far more recruiting to do, but they have also landed candidates in nearly all of their highly targeted races. While the search is ongoing in some second-tier states, most of the party’s biggest midterm question marks stem from the rampant competitive primaries that will play out next summer.

There is still plenty of time before filing deadlines and primaries kick off, but most top Senate candidates tend to be identified with about a year to go. As a result, Senate race recruitment season appears to be winding to an end.

At this point last cycle, major-party Senate nominees in 10 states that were at least marginally competitive had yet to announce their candidacies. They included six Republicans, three Democrats and essentially the entire field in Maine, where Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe wouldn’t announce her retirement for several more months.

But not including Maine, eight of the nine nominees who had yet to announce their candidacies by this point in the 2012 cycle lost their bids. The lone exception was Heidi Heitkamp, now a Democratic senator from North Dakota.

What’s more, last year, many of the late-announcing candidates were in promising, but ultimately long-shot, states for their respective parties. They included former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican running in President Barack Obama’s birth state in a year he was at the top of the ticket, and Richard Carmona, an Arizona Democrat who, like Lingle, the national party hoped could appeal to a cross section of voters. A few states that fit that category this cycle where Republicans expect to have candidates include Hawaii, Oregon and Massachusetts.

This cycle, Democrats landed recruits over the summer in their only two pickup opportunities. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and longtime Points of Light foundation head Michelle Nunn is running for the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Both are heavy favorites for the nomination, while Republicans face primaries in both, including three members of Congress vying for the GOP nomination in Georgia.

Democratic congressmen are running in two other open-seat races their party intends to hold: Reps. Bruce Braley of Iowa and Gary Peters of Michigan. Republicans have another deep primary in Iowa, while former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land appears the likely Republican nominee.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has worked so far this year to not only recruit, but also to ensure its incumbents are prepared and that none of its candidates face legitimate primary challenges.

“Recruitment failures across the country by national Republicans have rendered them unable to expand the map into blue and purple states, forcing them to play exclusively in red states where they’re mired in dangerous and divisive primaries that pit the establishment against the tea party,” DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky said. “Meanwhile, Democrats are on offense in Kentucky and Georgia, and our candidates are building organizational and financial advantages up and down the map.”

While spirited primaries have complicated the GOP’s efforts at winning back the Senate over the past couple of cycles, the GOP’s encouragement stems from a promising map and competitive candidates in place in many of them.

The GOP’s top targets include the open seats in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana. While the party is still awaiting word from Rep. Steve Daines, its top potential recruit in Montana, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds have both been in place for nearly a year. Both face primaries.

Beyond those open-seat opportunities, the most-targeted incumbent Democrats include Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Republicans have top recruits in place in each race. All but one contest will feature a competitive primary.

Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan will announce his Senate campaign soon, but his entrance will mean a three-way GOP primary next August with Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and tea party favorite Joe Miller for the chance to take on Begich. Republicans also face a crowded field in North Carolina, where state Speaker Thom Tillis may be the most well-known of the bunch.

Republicans’ two congressional recruits face divergent paths. Rep. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana will have Republican company in the jungle primary with Landrieu, while Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is attractive to both wings of the party and faces no intraparty opposition.

“Without a single red seat in danger of turning blue, Republicans are completely on offense,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Republicans have a growing list of all-star recruits, Barack Obama’s numbers are tanking and history suggests a very rough midterm for the president’s party, which is why experts from Nate Silver to Larry Sabato agree that the Senate majority is very much in play.”