Slow Pace of 2018 Senate Bids a Growing GOP Concern
Senate Republicans are bullish about the 2018 midterms as they target Democrats running for re-election in states carried by President Trump. But facing a turbulent political environment and seasoned Democrats who have won tough races before, some Republicans are growing concerned about their recruitment progress, anxious that potential GOP challengers aren’t stepping up to run in top-tier races.
Most Republicans caution patience, arguing it’s still early in the cycle and pointing out they have potential candidates in most of the races expected to be focal points next year. But others say that unless those potential candidates make their bids official soon, their prospects might not be as rosy as most believe.
Democrats are defending 25 Senate seats next year to Republicans’ nine. Ten of the Democrats are running in states carried by Trump, while only one Republican is running in a state carried by Hillary Clinton. But most of those 10 races don’t have Republican challengers yet.
Only in Ohio have Republicans landed a big-name candidate in state treasurer Josh Mandel, who announced in December and is hoping to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown after losing to the Democrat by six points in 2012. Mandel is the best-known Republican to officially announce a Senate campaign so far, but even he isn’t a consensus choice -- some Republicans are waiting to see if Rep. Pat Tiberi joins the race.
Republicans acknowledge it’s difficult to unseat incumbent senators, even in politically favorable environments. And facing potential headwinds under Trump while fighting against experienced, well-known Democrats could cause some recruits to hesitate in otherwise favorable races, according to one senior Republican who has worked on Senate campaigns.
“No one can make any type of promise to any type of candidate right now because God only knows what’s going on,” the Republican, who requested anonymity to discuss party strategy, told RealClearPolitics. “What compelling reason can anyone give me that this would be a good cycle to run for the United States Senate? I don’t know what that is.”
Republicans faced several recruiting setbacks early in the cycle that caused some unease. Former Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke was considered a top-tier recruit and had been widely expected to challenge Sen. Jon Tester, but Trump named Zinke to his Cabinet, setting off a scramble to find other candidates. And a trio of House members -- Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy (pictured above), Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Meehan and Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks -- passed on bids earlier this year.
The New York Times reported last week that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had expressed concern about the status of recruitment, and McConnell told the Washington Examiner that Trump’s low approval could hurt their chances next year.
“Don’t fall in love with the map,” McConnell said. “The map doesn’t win elections.”
Democrats jumped on McConnell’s comments and have attempted to play up the relatively few GOP recruits thus far.
“For once we agree with Senator McConnell: the Republicans’ recruitment failures are alarming -- but it’s not surprising potential GOP candidates don’t want to run on their party’s platform of broken promises, making middle-class families pay more for less health care, and selling out Americans’ Internet privacy,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democrats’ campaign committee. “Whenever Republicans finally convince someone to run for something somewhere, we’ll be ready to hold them accountable.”
Republicans pushed back on the sentiment, pointing out there are only two states where Democrats can play offense -- Nevada and Arizona -- but have yet to field challengers in either. But many Republicans shared McConnell’s sentiment that despite the positive dynamic of running against so many Democrats in red states, 2018 would not be a cakewalk.
“Recruiting isn’t exactly what you’d want at this point,” said a second senior Republican strategist. “My strong inclination is that it will improve, but it’s not where it needs to be yet.”
Most GOP strategists said it’s far too early to hit the panic button on recruitment and cited a variety of reasons for candidates to hold off announcements. Avoiding early announcements could prevent intense scrutiny during the tumultuous start of the Trump administration -- Republicans last year faced months of responding to questions about Trump controversies, and candidates would likely face similar barrages this year.
And for House members considering bids, there are financial benefits to holding back. Incumbent members of Congress can raise hefty sums from political action committees, but that money dries up if they announce for Senate, as many groups have rules about donating to challengers running against incumbents.
In many of the states Republicans view as their best pickup opportunities, there’s no shortage of people considering bids. In fact, in many cases Republicans are bracing for tough primary battles in top-tier races. In Missouri, Rep. Ann Wagner is widely expected to challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill and is reported having nearly $3 million in the bank this month. But some Republicans in the state are recruiting Attorney General Josh Hawley for the race.
In Indiana, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are expected to run against Sen. Joe Donnelly. Both reported more than $1.5 million in the bank earlier this month. Primaries in Indiana and Missouri doomed Republicans’ chances in 2012 when they ran flawed candidates to challenge McCaskill and Donnelly.
In West Virginia, Rep. Evan Jenkins is strongly considering a run against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and has reported more than $1 million in the bank. A source close to Jenkins said the fundraising numbers showed he’s “pretty serious” about a bid. But others are pushing state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to run, and he is reportedly weighing a campaign as well.
In those states, Republicans are confident that despite likely primaries, they’ll still field viable challengers. But some expressed concern about Pennsylvania -- where the only candidate thus far is a state lawmaker -- and Wisconsin, where a wide array of businesspeople and state lawmakers are considering runs in what could become a crowded field with no clear frontrunner.
In Montana, where Zinke was the prized recruit before joining Trump’s Cabinet, many are pushing Attorney General Tim Fox to step up to challenge Tester but are getting mixed signals about his level of interest in the race. One Montana Republican source said there is some concern in the state that national Republicans might not view Montana as a top-tier race and that they might push a candidate to challenge Tester, but not provide full resources to back up the bid compared to other red states.
Democrats point to Trump’s underwater approval rating as evidence it would be an uphill battle for Republicans next year. Republicans, however, point out Trump’s sky-high numbers among party faithful -- a PEW Research Center poll this week showed Trump with just 39 percent approval, but 88 percent backing among Republicans.
More troubling for the potential Republicans candidates may simply be the senators they have to challenge. Even in the deep red states -- Indiana, North Dakota, Montana, Missouri and West Virginia -- the Democratic incumbents won tough elections despite President Obama losing at the top of the ticket. It’s extremely difficult to knock off incumbent senators even in favorable environments, and Republicans acknowledge they’re challenging proven winners.
“These are senators that have been through it and know how to ride against the sentiment in their state and carve out their own brand,” said a GOP operative with experience in high-profile Senate races. “That is far more the issue than anything to do with Trump.”
That operative and others said that while the level of concern is low for now, it could ratchet up in the coming months without more high-profile recruits; some are hoping for announcements by summer, others expecting them by mid-fall. But Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner -- a top recruit of the 2014 cycle and chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign committee -- didn’t enter his race until March of 2014 after repeatedly rebuffing those recruiting him.
Republicans also have to consider their own track record in Washington when weighing their options. The senior Republican who expressed concern about recruitment said a lack of accomplishments early in the Trump administration could hamper Republicans’ chances, even in red states. The stalled Obamacare repeal-and-replacement legislation, a tough road ahead for tax reform, and the dearth of other early legislative accomplishments muddies the water for GOP candidates.
“Every single day that passes that we don’t accomplish anything when we hold all three branches is a day lost,” the Republican said. “If they don’t get a couple singles, at the very least, you can’t score if you don’t have men on base. Right now, the opposition is pitching a no-hitter. I would be concerned about it.”