Dems, GOP take hits on Senate recruits

The decisions by three prominent politicians to reject campaigns for the Senate have complicated recruiting efforts by Democrats and Republicans heading into 2014.

Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s announcement Monday that she won’t run for the Senate could badly damage Democrats’ chances of holding the South Dakota seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Tim Johnson.

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Her move follows Rep. John Barrow’s decision not to run for the Senate in Georgia, denying Democrats a favored recruit for that state’s open seat.

But Republicans are also taking a hit.

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) officially ruled out a bid against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) Monday afternoon, removing one the GOP’s last, best hopes of making a play for that seat.

Those decisions potentially shrink the Senate map and put added pressure on the party committees to find worthy replacements in states that aren’t naturally favorable territory.

“Everybody’s having a bad week,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report.

Democrats’ recent losses pose a bigger problem, however.

The party is defending seven seats in states GOP nominee Mitt Romney won in the last presidential election, as well as open seats in Iowa and Michigan.

If they lose six seats, they lose control of the Senate. 

Herseth Sandlin’s decision in particular hurts Democrats.

Party officials now hope U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson (D), the senator’s son, could run for the seat. 

If he doesn’t, Democrats could be left without a top-tier candidate in a heavily Republican state.

It’s also still possible that former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) could face a primary challenge that could hurt Republican chances of winning the race.

Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) hasn’t ruled it out, but she’s made no moves suggesting a bid.

“We believe as long as Noem doesn’t challenge him, Mike Rounds is now a clear favorite to be the next senator,” said Larry Sabato, the head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Democrats lost another potential top-tier recruit in Georgia when Barrow, a centrist who for years has won races in Republican-leaning districts, announced last week he wouldn’t run.

National party strategists say they’re just as excited about businesswoman Michelle Nunn (D), the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). 

They say Nunn would be a strong recruit to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), especially because a crowded GOP primary could cause trouble for the party.

But while Nunn looks good on paper, she hasn’t been tested as a candidate yet.

“She’s never held public office. OK, she’s Sam Nunn’s daughter. Who cares?” Sabato said. “He’s been out for a long, long time.”

Democrats are also searching for a candidate in West Virginia, where Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is retiring. And they have yet to land a recruit against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Few think they can challenge Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), despite the state’s Democratic lean.

The party, which found several top-tier recruits and avoided damaging Senate primaries in 2012, is still in a better position than the GOP, which faces recruiting problems in a number of states.

It’s also still very early in the election cycle.

Many of Democrats’ best 2012 recruits hadn’t announced bids at this point in 2011, including now-Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).

They’ve also scored high-profile recruits in Reps. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Bruce Braley (D-
Iowa), while the GOP hasn’t come up with anyone to run in either state.

And if former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer runs for the seat being vacated by Sen. Max Baucus, Democrats will have a strong chance to hold that seat.

But things aren’t going as smoothly for Democrats as in 2012, when the party won contests in a number of red states.

“Senate Democrats tried and failed to recruit candidates that can differentiate from the Obama/Reid/Schumer agenda, which reveals how terrified of the political terrain that they actually are,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, naming Senate Majority Leader

Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the upper chamber’s No. 3 Democrat.

The GOP is facing a number of headaches as well.

Paulsen’s decision reflects the challenge the party faces in taking on Franken, who looks strong in Democratic-leaning Minnesota despite his narrow win in 2008.

Others who have turned down the race include former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), whom Franken barely beat that year, and Rep. John Kline
(R-Minn.).

Paulsen had long been expected to take a pass on the race. But his official decision leaves the GOP’s cupboard bare of well-known Minnesota Republicans who could run for the seat.

The party also faces similar challenges against well-liked Democratic incumbents in the swing states of Colorado and Virginia.

“Democrats already have major recruitment successes in Iowa and Michigan, while up and down the map Republicans are struggling to find top tier candidates who can avoid messy primaries and appeal to mainstream voters in a general election,” said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Along with Iowa and Michigan, Republicans have yet to land a top-tier recruit to challenge Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), whom polls show is vulnerable.

Most expect Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to take on vulnerable Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), though he hasn’t jumped into that race yet.

This story was updated on Tuesday at 3:36 p.m. to remove a reference that Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) was a Democratic recruit.