President Bush’s approval ratings have hurt Republican recruitment of Senate candidates against vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Apparently, the GOP's obsession with Hillary Clinton, whose nomination as the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate they should pray for nightly, has hurt too. As Robert Novak notes in his column today, potentially strong Republican candidates are deciding to pass on the 2006 elections:
Democrats should be doing better but so far they have only one major recruiting success. In Pennsylvania, centrist Democratic State Treasurer Bob Casey is taking on incumbent right-wing conservative Republican Rick Santorum. Santorum is already in trouble at the polls and is so worried that he is now claiming that he has been critical of Bush's conduct of the Iraq war even though he can produce no evidence to support this amazing claim.
The hard truth is that the NRSC's 2006 recruitment under Sen. Elizabeth Dole's chairmanship has mostly failed. The remote possibility of Rudy Giuliani running was the only conceivable threat to Clinton. Stabenow offered a more realistic target, but recruitment of a viable challenger fell short. That has been such a familiar pattern in this election cycle that once-high hopes for expanding the Republican Senate majority have given way to apprehension about losing seats.
The summer after a president's re-election often brings anxiety for the party in power; that is particularly true this year because of an unpopular war.
In the midst of this malaise came the NRSC's release of Aug. 23: ''Hillary's dilemma. She finds cheating to the center hard on her marriage to the left.'' What follows is an opposition research work-up about how Clinton's overtures to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council antagonized her left-wing base. That material could impact a 2008 presidential run by her, but it is hard to see what this approach has to do with the NRSC's 2006 mission.
While the NRSC was Hillary-bashing, Stabenow was getting off the hook. She is a non-charismatic reflexive liberal (100 percent by the Americans for Democratic Action's measurement last year) who received only 49 percent of the vote while barely unseating Sen. Spencer Abraham in 2000. Furthermore, Stabenow was slipping in the polls as this summer began. She looked like the best incumbent target for Republicans in any ''Blue'' state.
But Republican regrets poured in from Michigan. Rep. Candice Miller, the strongest GOP challenger, bowed out early. So did Rep. Mike Rogers, another potential star challenger. Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land indicated she is running for re-election. Jane Abraham, the former senator's wife, thought it over but then said no. The latest to regret was Domino's Pizza CEO David Brandon. The probable nominee is black clergyman and former Detroit City Councilman Keith Butler, who faces a steep climb against an incumbent senator.
The NRSC did not get the candidates it wanted in the two ''Red'' states with the weakest Democratic incumbent senators: Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Bill Nelson in Florida. In Nebraska, President Bush named Gov. Mike Johanns, who seemed a sure winner over Nelson, as secretary of agriculture. The two strongest remaining GOP possibilities -- Gov. Dave Heineman and Rep. Tom Osborne -- are running against each other for governor. That leaves former state Attorney General Don Stenberg, who lost to Nelson in 2000, and a self-financed political neophyte, Peter Ricketts, among others.
In Florida, the Republican establishment tried and failed to find an alternative to Rep. Katherine Harris. But now that Harris is clearly the candidate against Nelson, the NRSC still has not embraced her.
It remains to be seen if two other vulnerable Democrats in ''Red'' states -- Robert Byrd in West Virginia and Kent Conrad in North Dakota -- will have a free ride. The credible challengers -- Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Gov. John Hoeven (N.D.) -- may not wish to risk uphill races in a climate negative for Republicans. If they do not run and win, the Republicans could be looking at an overall loss of two seats that could climb to four.
When Dole made a late run after the 2004 elections to overcome Sen. Norm Coleman's lead for the NRSC chairmanship, Coleman backers expressed doubt she would succeed at recruiting. But it would be unfair to make Dole the scapegoat. Recruiting responsibility is shared by the White House and the Republican National Committee. Beyond a recruiter's skills is widespread fear that 2006 will not be a good year to run as a Republican. That mind-set should worry strategists more than Hillary Clinton's ideological aberrations.
However, Democrats need other star caliber candidates if they expect to make gains in the Senate. Indeed, they require good candidates to protect open seats in tough races. As Cliff Schecter noted at the Gadflyer, 2006 looks good for Democratic candidates who would like an opportunity to move up. However, Republicans may dodge a bullet in 2006 if Democrats run strong candidates prepared to take advantage of Bush's problems.