Sen. John Boozman has yet to draw so much as a whisper of a serious challenger from the conservative Right or the Democratic field. But the Arkansas Republican isn’t idly hoping his luck holds out: He’s building the kind of political war machine aimed not just at defeating potential opponents, but intimidating them out of running in the first place.
Boozman’s small team of aides and consultants are, more than 20 months before the 2016 election, busily lining up an aggressive fundraising schedule for the spring, according to interviews, and they plan to hire a campaign manager by March. They’re committed to keeping up the momentum they think the first-term senator built during last year’s midterm elections, when Boozman’s battery of campaign rallies, Lincoln Day dinners, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of PAC contributions helped lift the Arkansas GOP to a sweep of victories.
It’s an aggressive agenda for a senator considered a near lock to win reelection, but it’s one that Senate Republicans hope is the norm for members whose terms expire in 2016. Party leaders say they are optimistic that — after a recent past littered with incumbents unwilling or incapable of mounting even threadbare reelection efforts — the current class of senators is taking the necessary steps to avoid being caught off guard in a primary.
“That last thing you want to do is appear vulnerable and get caught flat-footed like we’ve seen from several members the last few cycles,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a consultant for Boozman helping him plot his reelection strategy.
The early preparations aren’t solely a response to the high-profile defeats or near-defeats of members like former Sen. Richard Lugar in 2012 or Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014, Republican operatives say. It’s a reflection, they say, of a caucus that’s simply more politically wired than it used to be.
“Every single Republican senator is putting serious campaign teams in place months, and in some cases years, before their previous campaigns whether they need it or not,” said Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It is much less attractive for challengers to charge the hill if there is an army waiting for them at the top.”
Senate Republicans aren’t guaranteed to make themselves invulnerable to primary challenges — often, the cracks in reelection campaigns don’t appear until the stress of a hard-fought primary. Few observers, for instance, knew how poorly former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s campaign had been run in the months before his shock defeat in 2014.
And not every senator has erased concerns about the future: Sen. Dan Coats in Indiana has continued to flirt with retirement and had just $752,000 on hand to end last year’s third-quarter fundraising period.
But conversations with operatives working across the 2016 Senate map indicate the vast majority of incumbents have successfully focused on, at minimum, presenting an intimidating reelection organization.
Most commonly, incumbents are stocking their war chests. Earlier this week Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Roy Blunt of Missouri each reported strong fourth-quarter fundraising hauls. And Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama takes the cake for financial intimidation, boasting more than $18 million in the bank.
They’ve also taken the added step of pushing the numbers out to the press, receiving plenty of attention among political watchers.
Other members once speculated to be considering retirement have declared they’re not only running, but have already started building a campaign. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa recently boasted to Roll Call that he’d started his reelection campaign last year, and Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois has said he’s running “come hell or high water.”
More drastic efforts include those of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a likely target for a primary challenge, whose allies formed their own super PAC to systematically unseat his detractors in the state party from influential roles as precinct committeemen. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio — whose support for gay marriage has stirred talk of a primary challenge — rolled out his reelection bid with not only a $5.8 million stockpile, but also a 250-name endorsement list of Republican officials in his state.
Portman, Kirk, and to a lesser extent McCain and Blunt are likely to face serious Democratic opponents in 2016, making their own early preparations less surprising. But Republicans who aren’t top-tier Democratic targets are nonetheless preparing in earnest and taking inspiration from colleagues who have gone through it before — like Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
The third-term senator and former presidential candidate was a natural tea-party target in 2014 based on his moderate record, but he managed to dissuade the credible opponents in his state from running years in advance. When Alexander’s race was hit by a late wave of tea-party support following Cantor’s defeat, all that was left for the movement to rally around was a little-known state assemblyman who had already been big-footed out a House race.
“Most incumbents get in trouble not because of votes they cast, but because of the perception or the fact that they’ve stopped paying attention to the people they work for,” said Alexander, who began his own reelection effort more than two years early.
Before he’d even announced his intentions to run at the state executive committee, Alexander recruited his state’s entire Republican delegation to join his campaign committee. “The most credible candidates who could have run against me in a Republican primary were cochairmen of my campaign, and so were the 13 persons who would be the best campaign managers against me in a primary — the former Republican state chairmen,” Alexander said.
As senators facing voters in 2016 prepare their campaigns, they’re looking to Alexander and other members of their party who’ve successfully navigated challenges.
“I learned a long time ago that experience is the best teacher, so I’ve asked a lot of questions,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican up next cycle. “Lamar’s a great friend, Lindsey [Graham] is a great friend, Pat Roberts is a great friend, Thad Cochran is a great friend — I’ve sought experience and advice from all of them because that’s the way to be prepared.”
Isakson rolled out his own campaign with a rally at the Georgia statehouse, flanked by members of his delegation who some saw as his strongest would-be challengers.
Boozman, whose aides say has fully recovered from emergency heart surgery last year, hasn’t had a reelection rally yet, but last week he sent his closest supporters letters letting them know that he’ll be running again in 2016, according to Rex Terry, a county GOP chairman in Arkansas. Terry, for his part, hasn’t heard anyone talk seriously about challenging Boozman. But he understands the rush to begin raising money and building a campaign anyway.
“I think it’s just prudent on his part,” Terry said. “But I don’t think he’s got a problem.”
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