DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republicans are struggling to recruit strong Senate candidates in states that present the party's best opportunities to reclaim the majority, a sign that the GOP's post-2012 soul-searching may end up creeping into the midterm congressional elections.
It's admittedly early, with more than 18 months before the November 2014 elections.
But candidate recruitment efforts are well underway. And, so far, Republicans haven't been able to field a top-tier candidate in Iowa or Michigan, swing-voting states where the GOP hopes to make a play for seats left open by the retirement of veteran Democratic senators. Also, the GOP is facing the prospect of contentious and expensive primary races in Georgia and perhaps West Virginia, two GOP-leaning states where sitting senators — one Republican, one Democrat — are retiring.
With President Barack Obama not on the top of the ticket, Republicans may have their best chance in years to try to retake the Senate, which would put a major crimp on the president's efforts to enact his agenda and shape his legacy in the final two years of his presidency. Republicans need to gain six seats to win control of the Senate. Democrats will be defending 21 seats to Republicans' 14, meaning the GOP has more opportunity to try to win on Democratic turf.
Only recently, Republicans were reveling in the fact that several veteran Democrats were retiring in states where the GOP had not had a chance to win in decades. Last week, Democrat Max Baucus of Montana became the latest to announce his retirement in a state that typically tilts Republican.
But a combination of no-thank-yous from prospective Republican candidates in Iowa, slow movement among others in Michigan and lack of consensus elsewhere over a single contender have complicated the early goings of what historically would be the GOP's moment to strike — the sixth year of a presidency, when the party out of power in the White House usually wins congressional seats.
Despite that historical disadvantage, Democrats are fighting to reclaim the majority in the House, where control will be decided by a couple of dozen swing states.
After embarrassing losses in GOP-leaning Indiana and Missouri last year, the new Republican Senate campaign leadership is responding by wading deep into the early stages of the 2014 races, conducting exhaustive research on would-be candidates, making hard pitches for those they prefer and discouraging those they don't, to the point of advertising against them. The hope is to limit the number of divisive primaries that only stand to remind voters of their reservations about Republicans.
"It's more about trying to get consensus and avoid a primary that would reopen those wounds, rather than the party struggling to find candidates," said Greg Strimple, a pollster who and consultant to several 2012 Republican Senate campaigns.
This year, the party's top national Senate campaign strategists are so concerned about squandering potential opportunities by failing to convince popular Republicans to run in key places that they visited Iowa last week to survey the landscape after two top Senate prospects — Rep. Tom Latham, a prolific fundraiser, and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a rising star — decided against running despite aggressive lobbying by the National Republican Senate Committee.
Its senior spokesman, Kevin McLaughlin, and its political director, Ward Baker, met privately Wednesday with state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and state Sen. Joni Ernst, who have expressed interest. They invited Mark Jacobs, the former CEO of Reliant Energy, to breakfast Thursday. And they also tried again — and in vain, it turns out — to persuade veteran Gov. Terry Branstad, Iowa's longest-serving governor, to run for Senate instead of seeking another gubernatorial term.
Despite all that, the Washington delegation shrugged off the recruitment troubles, with McLaughlin saying: "It's more important to take the time to get it right than it is to rush and get it wrong."
McLaughlin and others have lamented the national party's decision not to intervene in the candidate selection last year, when Republicans lost races viewed as winnable in Indiana, Missouri and elsewhere.
Hence, the GOP's active role in Iowa this year.
The mission in Iowa: Beat Democrat Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman seeking to succeed retiring six-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Braley is the party's consensus prospect, winning Harkin's endorsement and already raising more than $1 million for his campaign.
Democrats are similarly set in Michigan, where veteran term Democrat Sen. Carl Levin is leaving office after six terms. The Democratic field has been all but cleared for three-term Rep. Gary Peters, who already has more than $800,000 toward his campaign. Last week, Debbie Dingell, wife of Michigan Rep. John Dingell, opted not to run for the Senate, after some of her key donors made clear they were for Peters.
But, as in Iowa, Republicans have faced recruitment challenges in Michigan.
So, the GOP's Senate campaign committee is planning a visit soon to Michigan, and hope to coax Rep. Mike Rogers into the race. There's a belief in GOP circles in Washington and in Michigan that the seven-term Rogers, a former FBI agent who now chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, would be a stronger candidate than two-term Rep. Justin Amash, a tea party darling with little money in his campaign account.
National Republican officials also are working to head off primaries in several states and are taking sides when they can't. That includes in West Virginia, which Mitt Romney won and where six-term Democrat Jay Rockefeller is retiring.
Rep. Shelley Moore-Capito quickly announced her candidacy and became a favorite of the GOP establishment. Some conservatives complained about her votes for financial industry bailouts, and former state Sen. Patrick McGeehan has announced plans to challenge her. National Republican Senate Committee officials said they would campaign — and run ads — against McGeehan if he appeared to be a threat.
In Georgia, several Republican candidates are considering trying to succeed the retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss. But so far, the two who have entered the race are arch conservative House members Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey. So far, national Republicans are treading carefully there to avoid enraging the conservative base. But the primary field could eventually include up to a half-dozen people.
At the local level, some Republicans are worried the delay is costing precious organizing and fundraising time.
"Every day Iowa Republicans spend talking about potential candidate deliberations ... is a day lost," said former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn.
But others say that the meddling from Washington stifles the voices of voters, who they say ought to be in charge of shaping the party's future, even if the primary is loud and divisive.
"It's a truer reflection of where the Republican Party needs to go," said Iowa Republican Doug Gross, a veteran adviser to Branstad.
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