Democrats Short on Recruits for Bid to Retake Senate in 2020

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer’s attempt to wrest the chamber from Republicans in 2020 is growing harder as he and the party confront early recruiting disappointments and an electoral map with few easy seats to flip.

Three potentially strong candidates said no this week to challenging GOP incumbents in some of the few races where Democrats might have a hope of making gains. With the 2020 campaign already under way, the clock is running to line up strong Democrats who can raise the money needed for a Senate bid.

Democrats Short on Recruits for Bid to Retake Senate in 2020

Schumer was unable to coax Stacey Abrams into taking on Republican Senator David Perdue in Georgia, where Abrams gained national prominence in her narrow 2018 loss in a big to become the first black female governor.

Also this week, Democratic Representative Cindy Axne of Iowa decided to run for re-election for her seat and won’t launch a bid against Republican Senator Joni Ernst. And Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas said he’ll stay in the House instead of taking on Republican Senator John Cornyn, one of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s closest confidants. Some other potential Senate candidates have opted to seek the Democratic presidential nomination instead.

Wider Field

Their decisions point toward an uphill fight for Senate Democrats, even as the candidate recruitment drive continues in both parties.

“If they want any shot at the majority, Democrats have to expand the playing field,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “And that’s what they’re struggling with right now.”

The GOP controls the Senate 53-47, meaning the Democrats need to pick up three seats to win the chamber next year if their party wins the White House, and four if President Donald Trump wins re-election. But just three Republican senators are currently seen as particularly vulnerable -- Martha McSally of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Susan Collins of Maine. Democrats, meanwhile, could lose a seat in heavily Republican Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones won a close 2018 special-election upset.

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who leads Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, said she has “no concerns” as Democrats continue their recruitment drive.

Expressing Confidence

Cortez Masto pointed to candidates like Air Force veteran M.J. Hegar. After narrowly losing a race in a Republican-leaning Texas House district, she’s running for Senate, and Castro’s decision could give her a clearer path to winning the Democratic primary for a shot against Cornyn. Texas is a tough state for Democrats, and Cornyn is an imposing target: he was re-elected with 62 percent of the vote and currently has the biggest trove of cash on hand -- $7.4 million -- among senators up for re-election.

Democrats Short on Recruits for Bid to Retake Senate in 2020

“We have great candidates that are running, qualified to do a great job, particularly with M.J. Hegar in the race,” Cortez Masto said in an interview. “She’s well-qualified, knows the issues that are important for Texas. She’s going to be a formidable candidate. And we’re in states right now where the incumbents don’t have favorable numbers.”

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Lauren Passalacqua, said the party is confident it’ll have tough challengers to vulnerable GOP incumbents in a number of targeted states that also include North Carolina, Iowa, and Georgia.

Republicans say they’re feeling increasingly confident they’ll hold the chamber after some high-profile Democrats decided not to run, especially with the U.S. economy continuing to expand.

"It bodes well, during these early stages, for Republican prospects of holding on to the United States Senate,” said Senator Todd Young of Indiana, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Republican Defense

Republicans are trying to motivate their voting base by portraying themselves as the first line of defense against the progressive agenda being advanced by newly empowered House Democrats, including measures on climate change, new limits on campaign giving, and Medicare for All. McConnell earlier this month called himself the “grim reaper” of the Democratic agenda -- a leader who will block just about everything the House does.

Despite the early challenges, Democrats are positioned better for 2020 than they were in the 2018 midterm Senate elections, when the party lost two seats even as they swept to power in the House with a net gain of 40 seats. Republicans next year will be defending 22 seats to Democrats’ 12, with only Jones seen as at risk on their side.

In 2018, Republicans had only nine seats on the ballot while Democrats had to protect a whopping 26 incumbents, including 10 from states Trump won in 2016.

Targeting Arizona

Right now, Democrats are poised to make their strongest challenge in Arizona, where gun control activist and former astronaut Mark Kelly is challenging McSally. McSally was appointed to the seat left open after the death of six-term Senator John McCain, after she lost in the 2018 election to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Kelly outraised McSally by about $2 million in the first quarter and on March 31 had $3.2 million left to spend to her $2.1 million.

Meanwhile, a handful of Democrats are lining up to challenge Gardner, including former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and former state senator and 2018 party gubernatorial nominee Mike Johnston. In the first quarter, Johnston raised $1.8 million, barely below the $2 million raised by Gardner, though Gardner’s $3.4 million cash on hand is more than twice what Johnston reported.

Democrats have some recruitment bright spots in open seats. In New Mexico, where Democratic Senator Tom Udall is retiring, Representative Ben Ray Lujan is running to succeed him. The decision by Lujan, who ran House Democrats’ campaign arm last year, increases the chances of keeping that seat.

Democrats Short on Recruits for Bid to Retake Senate in 2020

But the crowded presidential contest is a hindrance for Senate Democrats’ recruitment efforts.

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke declined to challenge Cornyn after his tough 2018 run against Republican Senator Ted Cruz, opting instead to run for president despite heavy lobbying by Schumer. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who would be a strong contender against Gardner, also decided on a White House bid. And Montana Governor Steve Bullock is expected to do the same, rather than challenge Republican Senator Steve Daines.

Democrats are also victims of their own success in taking the House, Duffy said. Their new majority in the chamber makes it a particularly attractive place to stay for lawmakers who might otherwise weigh a Senate bid.

“For many of them, they’re in the majority for the first time and they don’t want to give that up,” she said.

Democrats still haven’t recruited someone to take on McConnell, after subjecting him to tough contests in the past. They can be expected to come up with someone who can reap campaign cash from Democrats nationally who want to target the longest-serving Senate GOP leader. A leading potential candidate is Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who lost a bid for a Kentucky House seat last year.

“They’re going to make that a race, because they want to keep him busy in his own state,” Duffy said. “But it’s unclear it will make it to toss-up.”

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