DES MOINES, Iowa – Republicans are struggling to recruit strong U.S. Senate candidates in states where the party has the best chances to reclaim the majority in Washington.
It’s a potentially troubling sign that the GOP’s post-2012 soul-searching could spill over into next year’s congressional elections.
The vote is more than 18 months away, so it’s early. But candidate recruitment efforts are well underway, and thus far Republicans have been unable to field a top-tier candidate in Iowa or Michigan.
In those two Mideast swing states, the GOP hopes to make a play for seats left open by the retirement of veteran Democrats.
The GOP is facing the prospect of contentious and expensive primaries in Georgia and perhaps West Virginia, Republican-leaning states where incumbents, one from each party, are not running again.
President Barack Obama is not on the ballot, so Republicans may have their best chance in years to try to retake the Senate. Changing the balance of power in the Senate would put a major crimp on Obama’s efforts to enact his agenda and shape his legacy in the final two years of his presidency.
Republicans need to gain six seats to gain control of the Senate. Democrats will be defending 21 seats to Republicans’ 14, meaning the GOP has more opportunities to try to win on Democratic turf.
Only recently, Republicans were reveling in the fact that several veteran Democrats were retiring in states where the GOP had not had a chance to win in decades.
Last week, Democrat Max Baucus of Montana became the latest to announce his retirement in a state that typically tilts Republican.
But so far there’s been a combination of no-thank-you’s from prospective Republican candidates in Iowa, slow movement among others in Michigan and lack of consensus elsewhere over a single contender.
All that has complicated the early goings of what historically would be the GOP’s moment to strike. In the sixth year of a presidency, the party out of power in the White House usually wins congressional seats.
Democrats, despite this historical disadvantage, are fighting to reclaim the majority in the U.S. House, where control will be decided by a couple of dozen swing states.
After embarrassing losses in GOP-leaning Indiana and Missouri last year, the new Republican Senate campaign leadership is responding by wading deep into the early stages of the 2014 races.
Strategists are conducting exhaustive research on would-be candidates, making hard pitches for those they prefer and discouraging those they don’t, to the point of advertising against them. The hope is to limit the number of divisive primaries that only stand to remind voters of their reservations about Republicans.
“It’s more about trying to get consensus and avoid a primary that would reopen those wounds, rather than the party struggling to find candidates,” said Greg Strimple, a pollster who and consultant to several 2012 Republican Senate campaigns.
The party’s top national Senate campaign strategists are so concerned about squandering potential opportunities by failing to persuade popular Republicans to run in critical states that they were in Iowa last week to survey the landscape. The visit came after top Senate prospects U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, a prolific fundraiser, and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a rising star, decided against running despite aggressive lobbying by the National Republican Senate Committee.
The committee’s senior spokesman, Kevin McLaughlin, and its political director, Ward Baker, met privately Wednesday with state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and state Sen. Joni Ernst, who have expressed interest.
They invited Mark Jacobs, the former CEO of Reliant Energy, to breakfast Thursday. They also tried again, and in vain, it turns out, to persuade Terry Branstad, Iowa’s longest-serving governor, to run for Senate instead of seeking another term as governor.
Despite all that, the Washington delegation shrugged off the recruitment troubles. “It’s more important to take the time to get it right than it is to rush and get it wrong,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin and others have lamented the national party’s decision not to intervene in the candidate selection last year, when Republicans lost races viewed as winnable in Indiana, Missouri and elsewhere.
The mission in Iowa for 2014 is to beat Democrat Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman trying to succeed retiring six-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Braley is the party’s consensus prospect. He’s won Harkin’s endorsement and already has raised more than $1 million for his campaign.
Democrats are similarly set in Michigan, where Democrat Carl Levin is leaving the Senate after six terms. The Democratic field has been all but cleared for three-term Rep. Gary Peters, who already has more than $800,000 toward his campaign.
Last week, Debbie Dingell, wife of Michigan Rep. John Dingell, opted not to run for the Senate, after some of her key donors made clear they were for Peters.
But, as in Iowa, Republicans have faced recruitment challenges in Michigan.
The GOP’s Senate campaign committee is planning a visit soon to Michigan and hopes to coax U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers into the race.
There’s a belief in GOP circles in Washington and in Michigan that the seven-term Rogers, a former FBI agent who’s chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, would be a stronger candidate than two-term Rep. Justin Amash, a tea party favroite with little money in his campaign account.
National Republican officials also are working to head off primaries in several states and are taking sides when they can’t. That includes in West Virginia, which Republican president nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012 and where six-term Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller is retiring.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito quickly announced her candidacy and became a favorite of the GOP establishment. Some conservatives complained about her votes for financial industry bailouts, and former state Sen. Patrick McGeehan has announced plans to challenge her.
National Republican Senate Committee officials said they would campaign and run ads against McGeehan if he appeared to be a threat.
In Georgia, several Republican candidates are considering trying to succeed the retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss. But so far, the two who have entered the race are arch conservative House members Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey.
National Republicans are treading carefully to avoid enraging the conservative base in Georgia. But the primary field could eventually include up to a half-dozen people.
At the local level, some Republicans are worried the delay is costing precious organizing and fundraising time.
“Every day Iowa Republicans spend talking about potential candidate deliberations ... is a day lost,” said Matt Strawn, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman.
But others say that the meddling from Washington stifles the voices of voters, who they say ought to be in charge of shaping the party’s future, even if the primary is loud and divisive.
“It’s a truer reflection of where the Republican Party needs to go,” said Iowa Republican Doug Gross, a veteran adviser to Branstad.