GOP Senate Hopes Dim

In the two weeks before Labor Day, national GOP hopes of recruiting strong candidates against Democratic senators in three key states took a serious hit. It seems inarguable that the hope of enlarging the GOP’s 51-to-49 seat majority in the Senate next year suffered.

In Nevada, Rep. Jim Gibbons–so courted by the President and White House political operative Karl Rove as to drive away anyone else considering a bid against Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid–said he would stay in the House after all. Gibbons had been thought to be a likely Reid challenger, and, in fact, former State Republican Chairman Steve Wark had been negotiating with the Northern Nevada congressman to run his fund-raising operations in a Senate campaign. The heavy emphasis on Gibbons and his decision not to run means that Reid — who won his last term by just over 400 votes — has no heavyweight GOP contender to face yet, and, without one, is a near-certain winner in ’04.

Similarly, Arkansas two-term Gov. Mike Huckabee said he would not take on Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a state where Republicans have done increasingly well and which George W. Bush carried in 2000. Huckabee, who sought the Senate in 1992, cited his desire to finish out his present term through 2006. Although Huckabee boomed Lt. Governor Winthrop Paul Rockefeller as a Senate candidate, the namesake-son of Arkansas’ first Republican governor since Reconstruction says it is unlikely he will run and that Lincoln will be a strong candidate.

North Dakota Republicans had long hoped that pro basketball coach Dale Brown would take on Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan next year but Brown, too, said he is a no-go.

The next shoe to drop for the GOP could be the candidacy of former South Dakota Rep. John Thune, loser of a squeaker of a Senate race last year to Sen. Tim Johnson and thought likely to take on Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in ’04. Now that GOP Rep. Bill Janklow has been charged with manslaughter, his possible exit from the House could pave the way for Thune to win back his old seat in an easier-to-win race.

Stay tuned.