GOP facing recruitment challenges

On Monday, The Washington Post ran a story about the supposed failure of Republicans to recruit capable candidates for some 2006 Senate races. The article paraphrased a “senior Republican” operative blaming a “confluence of problems from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina and high gasoline prices” for the failure to attract GOP candidates.

On Monday, The Washington Post ran a story about the supposed failure of Republicans to recruit capable candidates for some 2006 Senate races. The article paraphrased a “senior Republican” operative blaming a “confluence of problems from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina and high gasoline prices” for the failure to attract GOP candidates.

Simply blaming “hard times” for recruitment failures is a cop-out. Hard times present just as many opportunities as perils to the recruitment process.

If there are McCain-like Republicans seeking to run on a platform of independence, what better time? You can run against one part of your own party’s record in Congress, thereby validating your straight talk. In the mid-1980s, in spite of the farm crisis that plagued the Midwest, Republicans could always find heartland candidates who’d run against the Reagan administration’s farm policies while otherwise hewing to a typically conservative line.

If there are bright, young aspirants whose ambitions would normally be suppressed by older, better-connected candidates, next year would provide the opportunity for a youth movement. It’s the same kind of situation that Illinois Democrat Barack Obama exploited in his 2004 Senate primary.

Bad times present other opportunities, too. When Bill Clinton occupied the White House and when Democrats led by House Speaker Jim Wright (Texas) or Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) dominated the Congress, Republicans did some of their best fundraising. Adversity makes the base focus more clearly on the goal of overcoming the opposition. Silly intraparty squabbles can be set aside to overcome challenges and achieve the greater good for the party.

There are other advantages to running in 2006. Because 2008 will offer an open presidential nomination, anyone running in 2006 can expect lots of out-of-state help. For example, any candidacy in North Dakota, West Virginia or Florida will attract a bevy of volunteers, from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Sen. George Allen of Virginia, from Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Anyone running in 2006 in any important congressional or Senate race will be forced to have one staffer devoted to coordinating all the out-of-state help that will want to  visit and help with fundraising, especially in key primary states.

But if the current political environment is not entirely to blame, what might account for GOP failures to attract the most-desired candidates for a few key races? Some disappointments are entirely local in nature and cannot be explained by national political trends. But three factors are likely to be universally important in discouraging GOP candidacies.

First, potential Republican candidates expect to be treated unfairly by the media. I know that this complaint sounds like whining and excuse-making, but it’s the truth. Republican candidates can expect worse treatment by the media than ever before in our nation’s history, so some potential candidates have decided to skip the abuse.

Second, most potential Republican candidates dread becoming embroiled in the battle between critics and champions of the GOP-controlled Congress. Many Republicans are charmed by the actions of the Republican majority led by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and Frist. But others believe these Republicans have betrayed fiscal-conservative principles. Because every GOP candidate running for Congress will be called upon to take a side in this family feud, some potential candidates have decided to pass.

Third, there are fewer “kingmaker” consultants these days who can say with credibility, “I made ‘so-and-so’ a senator in your state, and I can make you one, too.” Today, recruitment is often left to politicians who barely won their own races (in a different state) or to minor-league consultants who’ve barely won any statewide races. When Roger Ailes, Matt Reese or Bob Teeter told a candidate they’d win, candidates listened. Those days are gone.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.