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House Democratic Losses Deplete Bench of 2016 Senate Recruits

Jon Tester from Montana is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2016 cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sweeping House losses have not only pushed Democrats into a historic minority, they’ve depleted the bench of potential Senate recruits for the 2016 elections.

After losing the majority in the midterms, Senate Democrats are seeking strong recruits for 2016 in hopes of netting the five seats necessary to ensure they win control again. Party officials argue the majority is within reach because many Senate Republicans elected in 2010 are seeking re-election in a presidential cycle in competitive states such as Florida, Illinois, Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

But brutal losses in 2010 and 2014 have decimated the ranks of House Democrats in many of those states — and also shrunk the pool of potential Senate candidates.

“It’s a new election in a presidential year, but the thinness of the ranks of the U.S. House delegations, that will have an impact,” said Mike Fraioli, a Democratic fundraiser.

In 2010, widespread Democratic losses gave the GOP the power to control the decennial redistricting process in many battleground states. That led to more GOP-friendly districts on the map — the results of which were exacerbated in the 2014 cycle, when Republicans made major gains again.

For example, President Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania twice, but Democrats hold just five of the state’s 18 House seats (down from a dozen districts before 2010). And of the handful of remaining Pennsylvania Democrats, many have already passed on a bid against Sen. Patrick J. Toomey. Former Rep. Joe Sestak, who lost to Toomey in 2010, is seeking a rematch, but some Democrats in the state say they are looking elsewhere for potential candidates.

In neighboring Ohio, Democrats face a similarly downsized bench in their quest to oust Sen. Rob Portman. Obama carried the Buckeye State in 2008 and 2012, but recent losses depleted the number of Democrats in the 16-member delegation to just four. That’s down from 10 seats after the 2008 elections.

Rep. Tim Ryan, a Youngstown-area Democrat, has expressed interest in challenging Portman. But Ryan has passed on statewide bids many times before, including a gubernatorial run in 2014.

Further west, in competitive Wisconsin, Democrats view Sen. Ron Johnson as one of the cycle’s most vulnerable Republicans. But Democrats hold just three of the state’s eight House districts. Democrats view former Sen. Russ Feingold — whom Johnson ousted in 2010 — as their best bet, though two House Democrats could also run if he passes.

Around the country, in potentially competitive Senate races in Iowa, Indiana, Georgia and Missouri, Democrats will most likely have to look outside the House delegations for candidates. Democrats hold just nine of the combined 34 House seats in those states — and many of those members have partisan voting records that might make a statewide run more difficult.

“I suspect that losses in 2010 and losses in 2014 — we’ve lost roughly 65 seats since Barack Obama took office — that will thin your bench,” said David Heller, a Democratic consultant who often works with moderate Democrats.

In recent cycles, the House has often served as a launching pad for a Senate run.

In the outgoing 113th Congress, 51 senators previously served in the House, according to CQ Roll Call analysis.

This past cycle, 13 House members gave up their seats to run for Senate. A handful lost their primaries, but seven incoming senators will hail from the House: Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Steve Daines of Montana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Gary Peters of Michigan.

In 2012, 12 House members ran for Senate — and half of them won. In 2010, four of the 11 House members who ran for Senate won their races.

But in states such as Illinois and Florida, House Democrats still standing have strong profiles to run statewide campaigns.

In Illinois, Democrats said three House members are serious contenders to challenge GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk. Chief among them is Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a suburban Chicago Democrat and veteran who tops the party’s list of potential candidates.

In Florida, Rep. Patrick Murphy and Rep.-elect Gwen Graham are both mentioned as top recruits for Senate. Both Democrats won contests in Republican-leaning districts in 2014.

“I think anytime, whether you’re talking about statewide down-ballot electeds or members of Congress, you’re talking about people who have been thoroughly vetted by the public and the press, who have experienced putting together a sophisticated campaign operation and a quality campaign team, and most importantly who have a donor base and an ability to raise significant amounts of money, especially members who run in contested seats,” Heller said. “And those are three enormous advantages when you start talking about a U.S. Senate race.”

But while some Democrats say the House provides advantages for future Senate bids, the declining popularity of candidates from Washington, D.C., can sometimes serve as more of a hindrance. Democrats said in this political environment, finding an outsider — a successful business person, veteran or well-connected local elected official — might be a preferable route anyway.

Last cycle, one of the GOP’s top candidates, now Sen.-elect Joni Ernst, hailed from state government. Another strong Republican victor, Dan Sullivan in Alaska, previously served as commissioner of the state’s Department of National Resources.

Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats will look all over the map for candidates, including in state legislatures.

“It’s far too early to make any sort of sweeping generalization about recruitment. We’re still in December of 2014, and the election is not til 2016, so I think it’s tough to make any kind of statements with any certainty,” Barasky said. “The other thing is over the least few cycles we’ve seen that a) House members don’t always necessarily win. And b) a lot of the people who have won in both parties didn’t come from the House.”

Jay Hunter and Amanda Allen contributed to this report.


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