Senate Democrats began the 2014 election cycle facing a challenging political landscape, without many promising opportunities to take back Republican seats. And with news that a top recruit in Georgia passed up a campaign for an open seat, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell still without a Democratic challenger, there’s a growing possibility Democrats could be playing exclusively on defense in 2014.
Democrats aren’t even talking about challenging Sen. Susan Collins, the only Senate Republican up for re-election in 2014 who represents a state President Obama carried.
The Democratic struggles recruiting candidates in conservative territory doesn’t mean their hold on the Senate majority is in jeopardy. Democrats can lose as many as five seats in next year’s midterms and still hold onto the majority. But seriously challenging McConnell or taking advantage of a weak GOP field in Georgia would at least put some pressure on Republicans, forcing them to expend money and resources to protect their own instead of exclusively focusing on Democratic targets.
Barrow’s decision not to run for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss was most significant. Democrats saw Georgia as a key opportunity to pick up a seat in Republican-held territory, and as a moderate Blue Dog with a record of winning in a conservative House district, Barrow was a first-tier recruit.
Democrats also looked at the crowded Republican primary field, which includes Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston, and saw the possibility of drawing a weak opponent. Both Broun and Gingrey, who are among the most conservative members in the House, have grabbed headlines for making controversial comments.
With Barrow out, Democrats are hoping Michelle Nunn, a philanthropist and the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, will run. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee conducted an internal poll, reported by Politico, showing Nunn running competitively with Rep. Jack Kingston – a signal that the committee is turning to her as their favored choice.
Nunn is untested as a candidate, never having run for office before. One Democratic strategist working with her campaign said party leaders are still finding out where she stands on key issues. Democrats believe she would appeal to women and the party’s base. Other potential candidates include state Rep. Scott Holcomb, Rep. Sanford Bishop and former Sen. Max Cleland. Also mentioned as possible candidates are former Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Vernon Jones. A messy primary on the Democratic side would hurt efforts to pick up the seat.
In Kentucky, there have been no signs that the party is any closer to landing Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes into the race. When actress Ashley Judd passed on the opportunity to take on Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, all eyes turned to Grimes.
Grimes, the daughter of a former state party chair, won statewide in 2011 and would give Democrats a well-regarded opponent against McConnell—if she runs. She’s consulted with Bill Clinton, who encouraged her to run but recently said she “won’t be bullied into any decision.” For Grimes, the decision in part hinges on whether she wants to take on McConnell, who has $8.6 million in cash on hand.
"Right now, I am weighing that very decision with my husband with my family and with the supporters all across Kentucky that helped me to become Kentucky's Secretary of State and giving it the due diligence it deserves," Grimes said, according to WHAS 11.
Despite the recruitment, she has good reason not to run. Avoiding a fight with McConnell would allow her to position herself for a run for governor in 2015. It’s easier for Democrats to win statewide offices in Kentucky, which Mitt Romney carried by 23 points in 2012.
McConnell, meanwhile, is enjoying the advantages of incumbency: voters know him; he’s raised a total of $13 million for his reelection. He’s investing in data and digital technology to help his 2014 efforts. Plus, there’s the conservative advantage: Kentucky is a state Mitt Romney won by 23 points in 2012.
National Democrats have not publicly targeted Maine, a state Barack Obama carried twice. But the state’s Democratic-friendly electorate would give Democrats at least a chance to challenge Collins with a credible candidate. Democrats hold the state’s two House seats and independent Sen. Angus King, who won a three-way election in 2012, caucuses with the Democrats. But Democrats have not recruited a candidate to take on Collins, a popular incumbent.
Collins benefits from her moderate record, which goes far in Maine. King himself argued that Collins has an independent reputation, and Democratic strategists in the state admit that their party would face a formidable challenge, for a number of reasons.
Within the state, there’s a shallow bench of potential Democratic opponents (state lawmakers are term-limited; there’s no lieutenant governor in Maine and the legislature picks the attorney general and treasurer). Democrats in Maine are focused on defeating the vulnerable Gov. Paul LePage, strategists say. Peeling away resources from that fight to take on Collins, could hurt the effort to defeat LePage.
CLARIFICATION: The DSCC conducted an internal poll on the Georgia Senate race, which was first reported by Politico. An earlier version of the story reported the committee leaked the poll.
This article appears in the May 9, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.