Republican politicians in multiple states have recently decided not to run for Senate next year, stirring anxiety among Washington operatives about the effectiveness of the party's recruiting efforts and whether this signals a broader decline in GOP congressional prospects.
Prominent Republicans have passed up races in North Dakota and West Virginia, both GOP-leaning states with potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Earlier, Republican recruiters on Capitol Hill and at the White House failed to lure their first choices to run in Florida, Michigan and Vermont.
These setbacks have prompted grumbling. Some Republican operatives, including some who work closely with the White House, privately point to what they regard as a lackluster performance by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the group that heads fundraising and candidate recruitment for GOP senators.
But some strategists more sympathetic to Dole point the finger right back. With an unpopular war in Iraq, ethical controversies shadowing top Republicans in the House and Senate, and President Bush suffering the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, the waters look less inviting to politicians deciding whether to plunge into an election bid. Additionally, some Capitol Hill operatives complain that preoccupied senior White House officials have been less engaged in candidate recruitment than they were for the 2002 and 2004 elections. These sources would speak only on background because of the sensitivity of partisan strategies.
Historically, Senate and House races are often won or lost in the year the before the election, as a party's prospects hinge critically on whether the most capable politicians decide to invest time, money and personal pride in a competitive race. Often, this commitment takes some coaxing.
That is why Dole met twice with Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and a third time with Capito and her father, former governor Arch A. Moore Jr., in an effort to persuade her to take on Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D). Bush won 56 percent of the vote in West Virginia last year, making many think Byrd, who will turn 88 next month, can be halted in his bid for a record ninth term. But last week, Capito said she has decided to stay put and seek election to a fourth House term.
Last month, White House political strategist Karl Rove flew to Bismarck to implore the North Dakota's popular Republican governor, John Hoeven, to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D). Rove could argue with some compelling numbers: Bush won 63 percent of the state's presidential votes last year, and Hoeven trounced his Democratic opponents in 2000 and 2004. But the governor said no thanks, and Republicans concede they have no strong second choice.
Frustrated in Florida
Perhaps no state has frustrated the GOP elite more than Florida, where Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is trying for a second term after winning his first with 51 percent of the vote. After failing to persuade Rep. Katherine Harris to stay out of the race, GOP leaders began a public search for an alternative candidate. State House Speaker Allan Bense was courted by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) before bowing out. Dole took a private plane to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade conservative commentator and former Florida representative Joe Scarborough to make the race.
Many Democrats and some independents revile Harris for the role she played, as Florida secretary of state, in favoring George W. Bush in the 2000 recount process. But she has enough hard-core conservative fans to scare away other Republican Senate hopefuls, and Democrats are gleefully watching the dispute roil their rivals.
No Republican who has opted out of a 2006 candidacy has publicly cited the level of support from national Republicans or the general political environment as a reason. Potential candidates have a variety of factors figuring into whether to make a race. Still, to some analysts, the decisions suggest deeper currents at work.
"Is it poor recruiting or a bad environment? Probably both," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the independent Cook Political Report.
A senior Republican familiar with the recruiting process agreed that the climate has shifted for the GOP because of a confluence of problems from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina and high gasoline prices: "Looking at polls from June or July and then looking at them now, the deterioration is really bad."
Another Republican, pollster Tony Fabrizio, said a recruiting chill was inevitable. Candidates "aren't stupid," he said. "They see the political landscape. You are asking them to make a huge personal sacrifice. It's a lot easier to make that sacrifice if you think there's a rainbow at the end."
Fabrizio accepts the general consensus among political prognosticators that Republicans are likely to keep their Senate and House majorities, in part because there are relatively few open seats, and Democrats must defend seats in many places that have been trending Republican. But he and others say the hope from earlier this year of fortifying these majorities is now considerably more remote.
The GOP holds 55 Senate seats, but unless the political climate brightens considerably in the next few months, some strategists and analysts believe the next Senate may resemble the one that followed the 2002 election, when Republicans held the narrowest of majorities.
In part this is because Democrats have seemingly found their stride as Republicans are stumbling in the recruiting race. Since Sept. 1, Democrats have lured their preferred candidate, Missouri state Auditor Claire McCaskill, to take on freshman Sen. James M. Talent (R), and have done the same in Arizona, where former Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson, a wealthy developer, is poised to challenge two-term Sen. Jon Kyl.
Republicans will also struggle to hold on to Pennsylvania, where recent polls show state treasurer Bob Casey Jr. with a substantial lead over two-term Sen. Rick Santorum. In Rhode Island, liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee is being challenged by Cranston mayor Stephen Laffey in the party primary, prompting the NRSC to run TV ads attacking Laffey. Democrats hope the survivor will be too bloodied to win the general election in a state that Bush lost by 20 percentage points.
Dole can count some successes. She was hoping Mike McGavick, the former chairman of Safeco Corp., would take a fight to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) in Washington, and he is. In Minnesota, she scored her first choice, Rep. Mark Kennedy (R), to run for retiring Democrat Mark Dayton's seat, and cleared the GOP field for him.
But in Michigan, the White House and the NRSC moved quickly to persuade Rep. Candice S. Miller (R) to take on Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). After Miller refused the entreaties, attention turned to David A. Brandon, Domino's Pizza Inc. chief executive, as the Republican candidate of choice. Brandon, too, told Republican recruiters no. Following Vermont Independent Sen. James M. Jeffords's retirement announcement earlier this year, Gov. Jim Douglas (R) came under considerable pressure to run for the Senate but resisted. Until 10 months ago, then-Gov. Mike Johanns of Republican-leaning Nebraska was the GOP's hands-down choice to challenge incumbent Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson, but then Bush appointed him secretary of agriculture.
Cash on hand
It is the NRSC's fundraising that some GOP operatives find underwhelming. At the end of August, the NRSC had raised $25 million, just a little less than its counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But the DSCC has twice as much cash on hand, $16.7 million to the NRSC's $8.2 million.
Brian Nick, NRSC spokesman, said this fall's gloomy forecasts will give way to brighter skies next year. "We feel very, very strongly that we're going to be able to protect the majority where it is right now," with no erosion, he said. After all, Nick noted, "the election is over a year away."
On the House side, where Republicans hold 231 of the 435 seats, the effect of the political climate on recruiting is less clear. Democrats and Republicans can point to successes in individual races, but no clear national pattern has emerged, analysts say.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) says 50 or more seats are in play and notes that his organization has recruited 40 candidates in competitive districts. His GOP counterpart, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), says 27 to 37 seats could be close fights. "We will be a majority" after the 2006 elections, vowed the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.