After Democrats were eviscerated in last year’s elections, the party took solace in the fact that 2016 seemed built for a comeback. The party runs better in presidential elections — and while the House of Representatives isn’t in play, seven GOP senators are up for reelection in states President Barack Obama won twice.
But a sense of foreboding has crept into Democratic circles around the country. Interviews with dozens of strategists, party officials and Democratic luminaries reveal that in states Democrats are depending on to retake the Senate, top-level candidates are sparse, unwilling to run or more interested in seeking state office than going to Washington.
As a result, Democrats are embracing a slew of well-known but failed candidates — former governors, senators and also-rans spurned by voters the last time they were on the ballot — or being forced to rely on candidates with little political experience.
“I’m not so sure we’ve got the strongest group of potential candidates right now,” said Jim Manley, a former adviser to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “The math is in our favor. The question is whether we’re going to get the candidates to get us over the goal line.”
In Ohio, former Gov. Ted Strickland is weighing a run five years after voters cast him out of office. In Florida, Democrats’ best prospect may be a 31-year-old, second-term congressman with no statewide experience — or they could turn back to Charlie Crist, the former governor who lost his last two statewide races. In Wisconsin, Democrats are hoping for former Sen. Russ Feingold to mount a comeback. In Pennsylvania, Democrat Joe Sestak is looking for a rematch, even though some party insiders are hoping for a fresh face to emerge.
And in North Carolina, a few names are part of the chatter — including former Sen. Kay Hagan; former Reps. Mike McIntyre and Brad Miller; Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system who was recently forced to resign; and state treasurer Janet Cowell, who has received attention from national Democrats. But Democrats in the state aren’t particularly excited about any of the potential contenders and question whether they can seriously challenge GOP Sen. Richard Burr.
National Democrats say it’s too early to judge the party’s candidate pool. Strong candidates sometimes emerge later in the cycle, and it only takes one solid prospect to knock out an incumbent.
“It just depends on what your definition of ‘short bench’ is. I think we’ve got great people in all those states,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “I came out of the state legislature, and I won against a three-term incumbent — so I don’t think you have to have served in Congress or you have to have served statewide. I think you just have to have the fire in the belly.”
Tester says the party has strong recruits in every competitive state, but he declined to identify them.
Several Democrats pointed to newly elected Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who became a surprising national star, as their inspiration. She was a relatively anonymous state senator, far from Republicans’ first choice, before her unexpected rise, they note. And candidates Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) — who unseated Democratic incumbents last year — didn’t enter the race until much later in the cycle.
But that hope belies an unsettling reality for Democrats in moderate states: The party’s centrist candidates were nearly all wiped out in the 2010 and 2014 GOP wave elections. Republicans crushed Democrats in state legislative races and now control more legislative chambers than ever before. The GOP swept statewide races in Ohio and Florida, depriving Democrats of any rising stars with a statewide network and name recognition. In Pennsylvania, a lone bright spot for Democrats last year, the state’s Democratic treasurer resigned amid a corruption investigation and the Democratic attorney general is battling perjury allegations.
That leaves Democrats with few options to take on Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) besides Sestak, whom Toomey defeated narrowly in 2010.
“It’s worrisome to a lot of people,” said T.J. Rooney, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic consultant and former chair of the state party. “There certainly are many, many qualified potential candidates out there but for a myriad of reasons, they seem to be sitting this one out.”
One prominent reason: Democrats’ best prospects are keeping their powder dry to run for governor. Operatives around the country say rising political stars see more appeal in running a state than joining a Congress in Washington.
“You look at Washington these days, it’s completely dysfunctional,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who helped engineer President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns in Florida. “When you’re used to being able to get things done, going to Washington is a frustrating experience.”
In Florida, 31-year-old Rep. Patrick Murphy, who just began his second term, is on every strategists’ short list for the 2016 Senate contest. He’s been fundraising at a torrid clip and could put a fresh face on a stale Democratic establishment in the swing state. Democrats worried that he’s too green and too little-known outside his district may not have other options — the party holds no statewide offices, and its other up-and-coming congresswoman, Gwen Graham, just took office last month and isn’t thought to be looking to run statewide.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, is interested in the race, however.
“I think that to a large extent, you go into the election cycle with the map and the candidates that we have, not the map and candidates we want to have,” said Eric Jotkoff, a Democratic consultant and former Florida state party spokesman, “but with the map and the dynamics of this cycle favoring Democrats, we should be happy.”
In some states, Democratic operatives blame national party leadership in part for favoring retreads rather than entrusting major races to up-and-coming stars.
“The party really has to work to find the next generation of Democrats in the state,” said Brad Crone, a North Carolina-based strategist. “The [Democratic National Committee] is just watching the parade go by.”‘
In North Carolina, most of the focus has been on Hagan, who narrowly lost reelection last year to Republican Thom Tillis. But Democrats are also looking at up-and-comers like Cowell, the two-term state treasurer to whom Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) paid a visit last year, according to Democrats in the state.
In Ohio, a perennial presidential swing state where GOP Sen. Rob Portman is seeking reelection next year, some Democrats grouse that the national party builds up a sophisticated infrastructure that supports the presidential nominee only to dismantle it right after Election Day.
“What happens is that there is this national Democratic movement that benefits national Democratic candidates that does not filter down to local Democratic parties,” said Dennis Eckart, a former Democratic congressman from northeast Ohio.
That means few Democrats have been groomed for higher office, Eckart said. It also means that when a Republican wave sweeps the nation and hits particularly hard in moderate states like Ohio, all of the Democrats’ best candidates get branded as losers.
Democrats are still waiting on Strickland, but in the meantime, 30-year-old Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld has begun building an operation and recruiting major donors to Obama to back his bid. Although most establishment figures view his campaign as quixotic — or perhaps an audition for a future bid for higher office — his allies say he’s fundraising like a serious candidate.
But Democrats aren’t only suffering in state legislatures. The party’s ranks in the U.S. House are the thinnest they’ve been in decades, in party because Republicans’ 2010 surge helped them capture governorships and statehouses on the eve of the decennial census.
That gave Republicans overwhelming sway to draw favorable congressional and state house districts. Democrats note that in closely fought presidential swing states like Ohio, Florida and North Carolina, Republicans control a large majority of congressional seats and boast robust majorities in the state legislatures. And there are few competitive races for Democrats to build up a stable of moderate candidates who can run statewide.
“The consequences of no districts in play is people don’t think they have a chance, so they don’t run for anything,” said Eckart.
To read the entire article by Kyle Cheney and Tarani Parti, click here.