Jeb ebb: GOP’s fortunes take early hit

A GOP badly in need of a break after two losing election cycles hasn’t gotten one yet.

The latest blow came this week when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) decided not to run for an open Senate seat. That sets the stage for a free-for-all in that state and punctuates the first two months of a cycle already rife with GOP retirements, open seats and slow-forming opportunities for Senate vacancies created by the new administration.

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Bush’s candidacy would have given Republicans a big leg up in Florida and likely would have scared off top opponents. It might also have been the kick in the pants the party needed to reverse its electoral fortunes.

Regardless, it is the latest example of the GOP missing out on a top recruit. Last cycle, Republicans failed to mount serious challenges to all but one of their top targets and wound up with weak open-Senate seat candidacies in three states: in Colorado with former Rep. Bob Schaffer, in Virginia with ex-Gov. Jim Gilmore and in New Mexico with then-Rep. Steve Pearce.

Republican strategist David Johnson said Florida Republicans are “back to Step One,” and that the news spells bad things for the national GOP, too.

“It would have been great for [national Republicans] to start calling candidates and saying, ‘Look, Jeb Bush thinks 2010’s a great time to run,’ ” Johnson said. “It hurts recruiting.”

Another GOP consultant, former Bush aide Cory Tilley, said Bush’s decision was disheartening because Republicans had built up what amounted to unrealistic expectations.

“Having one of your superstars walk to the edge and not do it is a disappointment,” Tilley said. Tilley said people would get over it, but that the ripple effect of a crowded primary could be damaging down-ballot.

Democrats’ top potential recruit for the Senate race, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, was prepared to opt out of the race when it appeared Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) would run for reelection. Running against Bush would have been even more of a tough slog than against the moderately popular Martinez.

Democratic Reps. Ron Klein and Allen Boyd are also reportedly eyeing the race, though national Democrats think Sink would likely clear the field.

Sink, for her part, isn’t tipping her hand. Asked whether the calculus is different now that Bush is out, Sink spokesman Kevin Cate deflected.

“She’ll base her decision on how she can best serve Florida,” Cate said.

On the GOP side, the field could include upwards of half a dozen serious candidates, potentially including former state House Speaker Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWhite House makes push for paid family leave and child care reform Tom Hanks weighs in on primary: 'Anybody can become president' GOP senator blocks bill aimed at preventing Russia election meddling MORE, state Attorney General Bill McCollum and Reps. Connie Mack and Vern Buchanan.

Republicans who refuse to get down about the Bush news noted the solid bench in the state and said that one piece of bad news shouldn’t be magnified too much.

“It’s not something that makes you write everything off,” said GOP strategist Chris Wilson, adding: “You’re going to see a lot more candidates that might not have run in a difficult environment … looking at 2010 with a much greater degree of optimism.”

But Republicans are also dealing with a number of other less-than-friendly scenarios so far.

In Kansas, two congressmen are eyeing a showdown in the GOP primary for retiring Sen. Sam Brownback’s (R) seat.

When the same thing happened in New Mexico last year, the result was utterly disastrous — two lost House seats and a Senate race that was never competitive.

Kansas GOP Reps. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug bill Senators inch forward on federal privacy bill MORE and Todd Tiahrt hold much more Republican seats, but a bruising primary could open the door to someone like Democratic Gov. Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusJerry Moran: 'I wouldn't be surprised' if Pompeo ran for Senate in Kansas Mark Halperin inks book deal 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care MORE in the Senate race.

{mospagebreak}A third GOP Senate vacancy may come in Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R-Texas) seat, where Houston Mayor Bill White (D) could put the state in play for Democrats.

Meanwhile, the GOP has been slow to find its way in a trio of Democratic-held open seats being vacated by members of the Obama administration. The seats left open by President-elect Obama (Ill.), Vice President-elect Biden (Del.) and Interior Secretary-designate Ken Salazar (Colo.) have yet to lock in big-name prospective GOP candidates.

In Illinois, a proposed special election would have given Republicans their best shot at taking Obama’s seat, and Rep. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkWhy Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Bottom Line MORE (R-Ill.) was eyeing a bid. But Democratic leaders soon backed off the idea.

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Republicans have also failed to find a top-tier challenger for Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidNevada journalist: Harry Reid will play 'significant role' in Democratic primary The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - A crucial week on impeachment The Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached MORE (D-Nev.), who is unpopular in his home state. Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R) was indicted just days after he jumped into the race, while two other potential top candidates, including former Rep. Jon Porter (R), lost reelection in November.

Johnson noted that Republicans don’t appear to have a go-to candidate in Colorado, either. Colorado and Nevada appear to be Republicans’ top two targets at this point.

“It’s not looking that great,” Johnson said of that national picture, adding: “Even what should be a fairly good cycle is going be a tough cycle for Republicans, as things stand right now.”

GOP consultant Craig Shirley said Republicans need to focus on philosophy instead of politics.

“If they slide back and keep sticking to the tactical approach, they will continue to have problems recruiting candidates,” Shirley said.

Republicans are also dealing with a growing number of open House seats. Reps. Zach Wamp (Tenn.) and Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) are both running for governor, while Rep. Jim GerlachJames (Jim) GerlachThe business case for employer to employee engagement 2018 midterms: The blue wave or a red dawn? Pa. GOP 'disappointed' by rep retiring after filing deadline MORE (Pa.) has opened an exploratory committee. Along with Moran and Tiahrt, Rep. Pete King (N.Y.) is also eyeing the Senate.
Gerlach’s and King’s districts are both battlegrounds.

King is one of the top candidates Republicans could have hoped for in New York, but it remains to be seen if even he can wage a competitive race.

Most of the other GOP successes so far have come in the form of big-name Democrats heading for the Obama administration.

Republicans point out that Democrats haven’t run the table in recruiting their preferred candidates.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) was seen as the strongest possible contender against Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Budowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? MORE (R-Ariz.) before she was tapped to head the Department of Homeland Security, while former Iowa Gov. Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE (D) might have considered a run for Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Horowitz did not find evidence Obama asked for probe of Trump MORE’s (R-Iowa) seat before Obama chose him as Agriculture secretary.

Democrats might also have a difficult time replacing Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), who has been keying up a gubernatorial run. The four-term congressman represents a district President Bush won by 17 points in 2004.