Republicans' 2006 Senate prospects sour

This is not how Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) hoped things would turn out.

High-profile candidates she hoped could defeat incumbent Democrats are shying away from 2006, and some of her own Republican colleagues are looking vulnerable.

This is not how Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) hoped things would turn out.

High-profile candidates she hoped could defeat incumbent Democrats are shying away from 2006, and some of her own Republican colleagues are looking vulnerable.

On Monday, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) bowed out of a race next year against Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Late last week, Gov. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said he wouldn’t challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) next year.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which Dole chairs, has failed to recruit candidates it considers top-tier in Michigan, Florida and Vermont; no one is challenging Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.); and Republicans are embroiled in primaries in Nebraska and Rhode Island.

Tennessee, which has twice backed President Bush, is giving some Republicans heartburn, with the GOP Senate contenders attacking their opponents’ conservative credentials while Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) outfundraises his Republican rivals and aggressively canvasses the state.

Even in Washington state, where Dole helped recruit Safeco CEO Mike McGavick, there are signs of Republican splintering: Diane Tebelius, the state’s Republican national committeewoman, and Susan Hutchison, a former Seattle television reporter, are considering primary bids against McGavick.

“Nationally, overall, their recruiting has not been as strong as it was in 2002 and 2004,” Republican pollster David Johnson said of the NRSC. “They have missed a lot of chances in recruitment.”

Johnson acknowledged that the NRSC faces a tough political climate in which Bush’s poll numbers are sinking, the Iraq war grinds on and millions remain displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Johnson has conducted polls on Senate races in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Washington, among other states.

A Republican official in Washington dismissed Johnson’s assessment as run-of-the-mill sniping. “Last cycle, there was intense criticism of the NRSC, and I don’t think anybody complained about the results,” when Republicans picked up four Senate seats.

NRSC spokesman Brian Nick further noted that last year only one of the nine new senators elected, Republican John Thune (S.D.), defeated an incumbent. This year, Democrats are pinning their hopes of taking back the Senate on beating incumbents in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and elsewhere.

What’s more, Nick said, Republicans have avoided primaries in the two states where Democratic senators are retiring — Minnesota and Maryland. (Democrats have achieved the same feat in Tennessee, where Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) is retiring and Ford faces only a nominal primary challenge.)

Dick Wadhams, who ran Thune’s campaign in South Dakota and now serves as Allen’s chief of staff, agreed with Nick that the GOP is well-positioned to hold on to its majority or even pick up a seat or two in 2006.

Not only has West Virginia University’s former basketball coach Gale Catlett hinted he’d challenge Byrd, Wadhams said, in Florida, Rep. Katherine Harris (R), whose Senate bid was opposed by the NRSC and the White House, retains a loyal following.

Wadhams added that North Dakota shouldn’t be counted as a setback. “I don’t know that anybody really expected Governor Hoeven to run in North Dakota,” he said. “I think that was always icing on the cake really.”

Also, Nick said, Democrats have their own recruiting problems. Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) are both up for reelection, and neither faces a serious race; in Ensign’s case, many Democrats say Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a friend of Ensign’s, is doing little to recruit a candidate.

Democratic consultant Peter Fenn had a different take. “Republican recruitment this cycle has been nothing short of disastrous,” he said. “They have been about as successful as General Custer calling in reinforcements. … Democrats are in an excellent position to pick up a substantial number of seats and, possibly, take back control.”

Many conservatives, dismayed by the president’s willingness to expand the federal government, say that months, if not years, of growing discontent may finally take its toll in 2006, when they expect Republican House members and senators to face unexpected primaries from the right.

Not only should obvious, less conservative targets expect a primary — for instance, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), reviled by right-wingers for his position on the president’s judicial nominees — but also prominent party leaders such as Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), Johnson, the GOP pollster, said.

The president’s announcement Monday that he is nominating Harriet Miers to succeed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had fueled conservative anger with the administration, Johnson added.

“They feel she’s going to be another David Souter,” he said, referring to a Republican nominee who has come to embody much of what conservative activists despise about the judiciary branch.