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GOP recruitment struggles give Democrats hope in 2022 Senate fight

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu's decision to forgo a Senate bid dealt a blow to Republican hopes of flipping a Democratic-held seat.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu departs after speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 5, 2021.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu departs after speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas on Friday.Bridget Bennett / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — They lost the governor's race in Virginia. They had a bad scare in New Jersey. They're the clear underdogs in the battle for the U.S. House. But Democrats saw glimmers of hope in the fight for the Senate on Tuesday when a top Republican prospect decided not to run.

In New Hampshire, popular Republican Gov. Chris Sununu shocked party leaders when he announced that he wouldn't launch a bid for a Democratic-held seat, preferring instead to seek re-election for a fourth term as governor.

With one-third of the Senate up for grabs next year and a handful of competitive states likely to decide control, Democrats are looking for any advantage as they try to defend their majority. They've been getting some help recently from Republicans.

From New England to Arizona, Republicans are struggling to land top-tier recruits even as the deteriorating political climate for Democrats puts them in a strong position to win back the chamber. Party operatives find themselves having to keep a close eye on several Senate hopefuls they see as unelectable, a familiar problem for the GOP.

Brian Walsh, a former Senate GOP campaign operative, said he sees "echoes of 2010" in the pro-Republican political environment and the potential for subpar candidates to cost Republicans the majority.

"Arguably, Republicans lost five seats between 2010 and 2012 because of bad general election candidates," he said. "I'm not saying that's necessarily going to happen here. We don't know that yet. But broadly, candidates matter."

This time around, the midterm battle has taken on a new tenor with former President Donald Trump picking favorites, enforcing loyalty tests and lashing out at prospective candidates who criticized his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. Trump's intense support among core GOP voters requires Republican candidates to walk a tightrope — appearing as his enemy can be politically fatal in a primary, but embracing him risks alienating crucial swing voters in a general election.

"All things equal, Sununu taking a pass is an unequivocally positive development for Democrats," said Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and former Senate Republican campaign aide. "But in addition to recruiting breaks, Dems need the national environment to improve considerably over the next year or they stand losing to a less heralded group of GOP majority makers."

David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democrats' Senate campaign arm, said that Sununu's decision was "a massive recruitment failure" by Republicans and that the GOP was elevating candidates with "major personal and political flaws" in what he predicted would be "vicious, expensive primaries."

Sununu responds

In an interview Tuesday, Sununu acknowledged that he was under enormous pressure to run for the Senate and that his decision had let people down. But he said the GOP's wins last week in Virginia — where Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, a politically untested Republican, won in a state President Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points last year — showed it doesn't always take a big-name recruit to win.

"There are other candidates that can definitely beat Sen. Hassan," Sununu said, referring to Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who is seeking a second term next year. "And it isn't a matter of just holding a 51st vote, but there's probably 53 or 54 Republican wins out there at least to be had across this country. So it doesn't all hinge on me."

Democrats are defending seats in Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Nevada, which Republicans see as their best pickup opportunities. Republicans, meanwhile, are defending an open seat in Pennsylvania, which may be Democrats' best hope to flip a seat. The GOP is also trying to hold on to potentially competitive seats in North Carolina and Wisconsin, with Ohio and Missouri as outside prospects for Democratic pickups.

Republicans have concerns about their top primary candidates in several of those states. In Pennsylvania, Sean Parnell, whom Trump endorsed, denied his estranged wife's accusations of abuse at a custody hearing this week. In Georgia, former football star Herschel Walker is seen as a front-runner thanks to Trump's endorsement, even though The Associated Press, citing court records and documents, reported about accusations that Walker threatened to kill his ex-wife. And in Missouri, former Gov. Eric Greitens is attempting a comeback after sexual misconduct allegations appeared to have derailed his career.

Walker has denied the accusations in the past, while Greitens has admitted having an extramarital affair but denied any criminal behavior.

In other states, GOP prospects with far less baggage have resisted calls to run for the Senate. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has been recruited, but he signaled that he's not interested. Trump has belittled Ducey, vowing not to endorse him after he certified Biden's victory in Arizona.

"Mark Kelly would much prefer to be running against Mark Brnovich than Ducey, whether Brnovich carries his nunchucks around with him or not," said Andy Barr, an Arizona-based Democratic strategist.

Brnovich, Arizona's nunchuck-wielding attorney general and a leading candidate in the crowded GOP Senate, has come under pressure from Trump to use his office to give an official imprimatur to his false claims of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Moderate GOP governors resist

Some Republicans see chances to score wins in deep blue states like Maryland and Vermont or at least force Democrats to spend extra money playing defense — if only the states' popular moderate Republican governors were willing to take the leap.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott won re-election by 15 percentage points in 2018, the same year his famously progressive state overwhelmingly handed independent Sen. Bernie Sanders a third term. But Scott, who didn't vote for Trump and is at odds with his national party on some key issues, has said he has no interest in a Senate bid, even though he's the only Republican in the state who could pose a real threat to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy next year.

Doug Mayer, a Republican strategist and adviser to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, said that the interest in Hogan's running for the Senate next year "has been high for a while" and that it increased after the strong GOP performances last week in Virginia and New Jersey.

But Hogan — a rare two-term Republican governor who has been critical of Trump — has said he has no plans to run. "Nothing that's happened recently has changed that," Mayer said Tuesday.

Justin Barasky, a Democratic media strategist who works on Senate races, said more moderate Republicans have resisted running because "there's no room for sanity in the Republican Party."

"Look who's retired in the Senate: Rob Portman, Roy Blunt, Pat Toomey. These are people who, although they are Republicans, would come to the table on certain issues," he said.

Donovan said Republicans may simply need to get out of their own way and let the election be a referendum on Biden, whose popularity has fallen in recent months.

"The key will be navigating primaries and unifying behind candidates who can allow the race to be about the incumbent and the president rather than themselves and the previous White House occupant," he said.

Danny Barefoot, a Democratic strategist who ran a recent focus group of suburban women in Virginia who voted for Biden and then backed Youngkin, said he was celebrating Sununu's decision with some friends before one of them offered a bracing reality check.

"The joke's going to be on us if the environment is so bad that Republicans end up nominating some third-rate Trumpy person who was probably at the [Jan. 6] insurrection — and we end up losing anyway," he said.