New Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Senators huddle on path forward for SALT deduction in spending bill MORE (Mont.) has one goal for 2016: win back Senate control.
“I can tell you that I will not be successful in this job unless we take the majority back,” Tester told The Hill in an interview in his new office at the DSCC’s Capitol Hill headquarters. “I'm not in this to pick up a seat. I'm in this to win the majority.”
The garrulous Montana farmer has a much easier task than his predecessor. After a cycle in which Democrats lost nine seats and control of the Senate, the tables are now turned — they’re defending only 10 seats to Republicans’ 24 seats, many in blue or swing states.
Tester says he feels his party's chances are “good,” especially in a more favorable presidential turnout year, but emphasizes as he points to a color-coded target map that there are no slam dunks this cycle.
“Everybody says the maps are in your favor, and it is, there's more red than blue on that map,” he said with a wave with a hand short a few fingers from a long-ago farm accident. “But none of those red seats are a gimme, not one of them are a gimme. They're all going to take a lot of work.”
Tester suggested he’s still getting his bearings a bit at the DSCC, joking that he knows one way in and out of the labyrinthine office space just north of the Supreme Court. His office remains sparsely decorated: a Montana flag behind his desk and a velvet Elvis Presley poster on the adjacent wall.
But Tester has already been busy meeting with prospective candidates and checking in with the 10 Democrats facing reelection next year to make sure none besides Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) plan to retire, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“I think he's in. He doesn't look particularly good right now. ... He looks like he's been through a war. But Harry's a fighter and Harry bounces back from this kind of stuff,” Tester said, referring to Reid’s recent major injuries suffered in a bad fall while exercising.
“I will tell you that we had a conversation on the phone and he said 'What about the incumbents, who have you talked to?' And I said 'I talked to them all. Barbara's not in, the rest of them are all in. There's only one I haven't talked to.' And he says 'Who is it? Who haven't you talked to yet?' And I said 'It's you, Harry. Are you in?' And he goes 'Absolutely,’” Tester said. “Harry would be the only one and he assures me he's going 110 percent.”
Tester is also busy talking to prospective candidates and state-level operatives to get a sense of who might be the group's best recruits. The Hill’s interview was delayed because he was meeting with Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld (D), who’s already declared his intentions to run against Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
Tester has also talked to former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D), who’s also weighing a campaign and would be the Democratic front-runner.
“He's definitely interested, there's no doubt about that,” Tester said of Strickland. “He's certainly weighing his options right now ... he's 75 years old but he's got a good level of energy, and I think he's definitely a candidate who could be formidable.”
Tester said he talked to former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in early January about a potential rematch against Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Feingold has been seriously considering a run, and Tester said he’d learned his lesson from what many Democrats viewed as a lackluster 2010 campaign.
“The conversation [with Feingold] was ‘It's a new day now.’ In 2010, Citizens United started about two-thirds of the way through on that race, I believe it was in June on a November election. It's a different world now. And he knows that, he's smart. He's a Rhodes Scholar, for chrissakes. And he knows what he's getting into,” Tester said. “Russ is a good guy and if Russ chooses to [run] he'd be a formidable candidate. I think he learned from the last election. You learn a lot more from defeat than you learn from victory and he'll utilize that if he gets into this race.”
Tester also called former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) “formidable” as a potential rematch foe against Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
The DSCC chairman argued that Feingold and Sestak shouldn't be judged by their past performances — and pointed out that 2016 will be much different than when both were swept away by a GOP wave.
"You know what, 2010 is a different year from this year. It's a different year from a money standpoint, it's a different year from an election standpoint, it wasn't a presidential [year], this is," he said. "I just don't know you can compare the two years.”
Tester hasn’t reached out to two other former colleagues many Democrats hope run again, though.
Former Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) are both top recruitment targets for the party, but he said it’s best to let them “take it easy” for a while after the pair lost hard-fought 2014 campaigns. Tester said it took until March after his own hard-fought 2012 reelection before his life had returned to “any semblance of normality.”
“I think it's better for them mentally to just get back in the groove and I think right now they could make a bad decision, either getting in or not getting in, a bad decision for them. I think it's really much more important to just let them settle down, take it easy, get your mind back in the middle, and at some point in time I'll have a visit to see if they're interested. But I still think it's too early,” he said.
Tester said that he isn’t likely to reach out for months — “maybe the August break” — in order to let them recover and reevaluate.
In Illinois, he suggested Democrats could be facing a primary before they know who will take on Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). A number of congressmen are looking at running there, though Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) appears to be the early front-runner and may still be able to clear the field if she runs.
The red-state Montanan, known for breaking with his party on a number of issues including energy and banking regulations, said he didn’t take the DSCC chairmanship to be partisan, even though the job has that reputation.
“The country could use some different thinking than a lot of the folks I serve with are trying to promote,” he said. “And that's why I thought this job was important — so that we could recruit good candidates that have a certain level of commonsense. So we'll see how successful I am in that.”