What a difference two years makes for Senate Republicans. After a cycle punctuated by disappointing recruits, missed opportunities and disastrous results, the party has already started the new cycle on an impressive note, even before the new year -- and a new campaign committee chairman -- arrives.
Former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds announced that he would be forming an exploratory committee for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., two months before the November elections. Republican congressmen are lining up to challenge Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., emboldened after the party’s takeover of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. And most importantly, Rep. Shelley Capito, R-W.V., announced she’s challenging West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, landing the party a bona fide prospect they lacked in the state over the last two election cycles.
This column recognized early on that something was amiss for Senate Republicans in 2012, despite the favorable landscape. Senate seats being contested on welcoming turf in Florida, Missouri and West Virginia weren’t attracting top-tier GOP talent despite the prospect of millions in outside super PAC money.
By contrast, the early movement is a clear sign that Republicans view this midterm cycle, with President Obama in charge for the next four years, as a more inviting environment than 2012. Not only are Democrats defending more seats than Republicans (20 to 13) – after all, that did little to help them this November – but many of the most vulnerable Democratic senators hail from some of the most conservative states in the country, where Obama and Democrats have struggled badly over the last several years.
After losing two seats, newly-minted NRSC chairman Jerry Moran now needs to net six seats to win back control of the Senate. The formula is simple, but challenging: Win six of the 7 Democratic-held seats in states Romney carried (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia), or expand their wiggle room by ousting a vulnerable Democrat like Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. Republicans hardly face any exposure: Even with prospective primary challenges, only Maine Sen. Susan Collins is even remotely at risk this cycle against a Democrat. All told, the 2014 map is even more encouraging for Republicans, provided they land the right candidates.
Capito is giving the party confidence its Senate slump is over. As a Republican who unlocked the state’s Democratic DNA before it broke Republican, she’s long been a hot commodity for statewide office. Her father, Arch Moore, was the only Republican ever to beat Rockefeller -- in the state’s 1972 governor’s race. But she’s long resisted entreaties from national Republicans to run, most recently in 2010 and 2012 against conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in favor of a 2014 campaign against Rockefeller, who is more liberal than his Senate counterpart and more beatable in a state trending the GOP’s way. Rockefeller’s support of cap-and-trade legislation and outspoken criticism of the coal industry for opposing clean energy legislation have made him high vulnerable in an energy-producing state; Democrats openly speculate that he may retire rather than face his first competitive campaign since 1984.
Another encouraging sign for Republicans: Capito jumped in the race early, seemingly unconcerned about the threat of a primary challenge from the right. That’s a shift from last cycle, when party operatives speculate that recruitment suffered because enough prospective candidates passed on bids, wanting to avoid the risk of facing a more-ideologically pure primary opponent. When brand-name Republicans, like Tommy Thompson or George Allen aren’t deemed kosher by party activists, it makes it tougher for a lesser-known congressman with a few wayward votes to risk their job and, in turn, the nomination. (Think ex-Missouri Sen. Jim Talent or Rep. Jo Ann Emerson in Missouri; Reps. Jim Gerlach or Pat Meehan in Pennsylvania).
Already the anti-tax Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund issued statements criticizing Capito’s support of earmarks and wasteful spending. The knee-jerk opposition shows how West Virginia is unfamiliar terrain for many of these outside groups. Mitt Romney didn’t sweep West Virginia because of his party’s support for spending cuts and entitlement reforms, but because of the antipathy to the Democratic party’s environmental policies that threaten the local economy. West Virginia is a Republican-trending state, but isn’t becoming a fiscally conservative bastion. (One of the four Republicans to vote against Paul Ryan’s budget: West Virginia Rep. David McKinley.)
Capito, representing a blue-collar constituency, is unapologetic about seeking federal funds for her state, even if it draws hackles from certain fiscal conservatives. But that’s what makes her an imposing GOP candidate, cognizant of the needs of her state, often dependent on federal funds. It’s highly unlikely she’ll receive a credible primary challenge despite the threats; there isn’t any bench of conservative Republicans in the state.
Capito could soon be joined by other aspiring Republicans in what’s shaping up to be an imposing recruiting class. Rounds formed an exploratory committee in September; like Capito, his biggest challenge in deeply Republican South Dakota will be avoiding a primary challenge from his right. He’s looking to follow the path as his northern neighbor, Sen. John Hoeven, another personally-liked governor who coasted to a landslide Senate victory.
Nearly the entire Arkansas Republican Congressional delegation – save for Rep. Rick Crawford – are considering campaigns against Sen. Mark Pryor, a moderate Democrat whose surname is nearly as storied in the state as the Clinton name.. (He’s the son of former Sen. David Pryor, who served the state as governor, senator and representative.) Pryor was so untouchable six years ago that not a single Republican stepped forward to challenge him; he won 80 percent against a Green Party candidate. Now Arkansas Republican wags expect a contested primary between multiple credible opponents, with Reps. Tim Griffin, Steve Womack and lieutenant governor Mark Darr looking like the leading contenders. Griffin, just promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, has a compelling biography, but Womack hails from northwest Arkansas, the region with the most Republican votes in the state.
Other races have yet to take shape, but there’s interest from Republicans looking to challenge sitting Democratic senators. In Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy has banked over $2 million in his campaign account, most of that coming in the last year, despite facing no serious re-election campaign. In solidly-Republican Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is expected to face a tough challenge, with the state’s lieutenant governor Mead Treadwell a possible opponent. And we’re not even in December yet.
It’s far too premature to assess the trajectory of the 2014 cycle, but it’s clear that Democrats will be playing exclusively on defense with their 55-seat Senate majority. Moran faces the task of recruiting well-regarded candidates and getting them through the nomination process, which proved to be a lot tougher than expected in 2012. But if the early movement is indicative of a trend, he won’t need to do much heavy lifting.