Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezDemocrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden Rand Paul blocks quick vote on House-passed B Iron Dome funding 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.
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 SchumerChuck SchumerBiden's Supreme Court commission ends not with a bang but a whimper Hispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act 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 CoatsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race Cyber preparedness could save America's 'unsinkable aircraft carrier' 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.
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 HoevenHouse passes legislation to strengthen federal cybersecurity workforce The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands 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 MikulskiHarris invites every female senator to dinner next week Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? Bottom line 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) MenendezDemocrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden Rand Paul blocks quick vote on House-passed B Iron Dome funding MORE; the Republicans want to nationalize this.”
But Ross added: “If he can save a bunch of seats, he’ll be a hero.”