Nightmare election cycle developing for Democratic campaign boss Menendez

Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezThere is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean MORE has seen Democratic election hopes take a dramatic downturn from when he began his tenure as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Menendez started the 2010 cycle amid talk of Democrats adding to their majority. Now it looks as though he could lose what advantage his party enjoys.

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But even after Democrats lost the Massachusetts special election and suffered some grim retirement and recruitment news, Menendez (D-N.J.) remains largely unscathed.

Even privately, Democrats have declined to judge the leadership of the DSCC so early in the cycle.

“People have been very, very reluctant to be critical,” said Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report. “That doesn’t mean they won’t eventually.”

Duffy emphasized that the measures of success for Menendez have changed drastically over the past year. After six Republican senators announced their retirements in early 2009, the Senate landscape looked ripe for Menendez’s picking.

But now, he’s seen five of his own seats open up, including two — Delaware and North Dakota — where Republicans are now heavy favorites.

He’s also shepherding three incumbents with sub-40 approval ratings and two untested appointees into what is looking more and more like a cocktail for disaster.

Menendez’s tenure can’t help but be compared to the success of his predecessor, Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw US women's soccer team reignites equal pay push MORE (D-N.Y.). But Schumer, who helmed the committee with the wind at his back, said that’s not fair.

“The entire caucus knows how difficult the circumstances are right now, and so everyone believes he’s doing an outstanding job,” Schumer said.

Retaking the majority requires nearly everything to go perfectly for Republicans, and Menendez still has plenty to hold on to.

Republicans have 10 solid pickup opportunities at the moment, with outside chances at making races competitive in New York, Washington state and Wisconsin. Without adding opportunities, they would need to win all 10, hold all their open seats and avoid any surprises.

The math has moved into the realm of the possible, but a couple more shoes probably need to drop for anyone to start measuring drapes.

“As important as momentum can be in politics, people tend to overestimate it,” polling analyst Nate Silver said. “It’s hard to go 15-for-15, and that’s essentially what the GOP needs to do.”

The DSCC has endured some of the same setbacks Republicans went through the last two cycles. To counter the unavoidable, it has been emphasizing fundraising and aggressively seeking to define GOP candidates before their races take shape.

Most recently, it landed a series of hits on former Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHillicon Valley: Tim Cook visits White House | House hearing grapples with deepfake threat | Bill, Melinda Gates launch lobbying group | Tech turns to K-Street in antitrust fight | Lawsuit poses major threat to T-Mobile, Sprint merger Hillicon Valley: Tim Cook visits White House | House hearing grapples with deepfake threat | Bill, Melinda Gates launch lobbying group | Tech turns to K-Street in antitrust fight | Lawsuit poses major threat to T-Mobile, Sprint merger House Intel to take first major deep dive into threat of 'deepfakes' MORE (R-Ind.) in the days after he announced he would challenge Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.).

In a sign of the times for the DSCC, Bayh retired anyway. Now the committee is faced with uniting the party around a candidate who will be nominated by state party leaders — likely either Rep. Baron Hill or Rep. Brad Ellsworth.

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The Bayh news was surprising but not unfamiliar. In addition to the retirement this year of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the party has lost out on top candidates in Delaware, Illinois and North Carolina. The DSCC remains high on its replacements in those states, but compared to the trio of attorneys general the committee wanted in those states — Beau Biden, Lisa Madigan and Roy Cooper, respectively — its candidates have something to prove.

One place where Menendez did get his attorney general was in Connecticut, where the DSCC has sought to promote its work in gently ushering Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) into retirement and replacing him with a much stronger Richard Blumenthal.

Menendez has gotten his man in several other races, too — particularly in the GOP-held open seats and in Louisiana, where Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) faces an uphill battle.

Democrats have outraised Republicans at the committee level and have candidates with more cash for Republican open seats in Kentucky and New Hampshire.

Near the top of Menendez’s priority list are developing the candidacies of underdogs in Delaware, Louisiana and North Carolina and recruiting a candidate to run against Gov. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenMcConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal Senators introduce bill to prevent border agency from selling personal data MORE (R) in North Dakota.

Former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Martin Frost (Texas) said Menendez will need to be a calming voice for any other wavering incumbents.

Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiLobbying World Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Md.) has been the subject of retirement rumors in recent days, with Democratic sources denying them.

Frost, who had Menendez as a vice chairman when he was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he just needs to take things one step at a time.

“Election cycles have peaks and valleys, and you have to keep working through that,” Frost said. “When I was chairman, I had five members switch parties. There are things that come up in the course of two years.”

Menendez declined to be interviewed for this story.

Democratic consultant Jim Ross, who has worked with the DSCC, praised executive director J.B. Poersch, who was a holdover from the last two cycles with Schumer. But he recognized the task at hand is unlike what Poersch has faced.

“It will be interesting to see how they hunker down for this cycle,” Ross aid. “The key is to not make it about Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezThere is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean MORE; the Republicans want to nationalize this.”

But Ross added: “If he can save a bunch of seats, he’ll be a hero.”