Mired in August’s dog days, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) last week released a four-page opposition research paper on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. The female Democratic senator deserving greater scrutiny, however, was Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. A vulnerable Stabenow appears headed for a second term, pointing to broad Republican failure.
The hard truth is that the NRSC’s 2006 recruitment under Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s chairmanship has mostly failed. The remote possibility of Rudy Giuliani running was the only conceivable threat to Clinton. Stabenow offered a more realistic target, but recruitment of a viable challenger fell short. That has been such a familiar pattern in this election cycle that once high hopes for expanding the Republican Senate majority have given way to apprehension about losing seats next year.
The summer after a president’s re-election often brings anxiety for the party in power, and that is particularly true this year because of an unpopular war. Nevertheless, failure to recruit the best candidates connotes lack of confidence in the party’s foreseeable future.
In the midst of this malaise came the NRSC’s release of Aug. 23: "Hillary’s dilemma. She finds cheating to the center hard on her marriage to the left." What follows is an opposition research work-up about how Sen. Clinton’s overtures to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council antagonized her left-wing base. That material could impact a 2008 presidential run by her, but it is hard to see what this approach has to do with the NRSC’s 2006 mission.
While the NRSC was Hillary-bashing, Stabenow was getting off the hook. She is a non-charismatic reflexive liberal (100 percent by the Americans for Democratic Action’s measurement last year) who received only 49 percent of the vote while barely unseating Sen. Spencer Abraham in 2000. Furthermore, Stabenow was slipping in the polls as this summer began. She looked like the best incumbent target for Republicans in any "Blue" state.
But Republican regrets poured in from Michigan. Rep. Candice Miller, the strongest Republican challenger, bowed out early. So did Rep. Mike Rogers, another potential star challenger. Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land indicated she is running for re-election. Jane Abraham, the former senator’s wife, thought it over but then said no. The latest to regret was Domino’s Pizza CEO David Brandon. The probable nominee is black clergyman and former Detroit City Councilman Keith Butler, who faces a steep climb against an incumbent senator who is recovering in the polls.
The NRSC did not get the candidates it wanted in the two "Red" states with the weakest Democratic incumbent senators: Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Bill Nelson in Florida.
In Nebraska, President Bush named Gov. Mike Johanns, who seemed a sure winner over Nelson, as secretary of Agriculture. The two strongest remaining GOP possibilities — Gov. Dave Heineman and Rep. Tom Osborne — are running against each other for governor. That leaves former state Attorney General Don Stenberg, who lost to Nelson in 2000, and a self-financed political neophyte, Peter Ricketts, among others.
In Florida, the Republican establishment tried and failed to find an alternative to Rep. Katherine Harris. But now that Harris is clearly the candidate against Nelson, the NRSC still has not embraced her.
It remains to be seen whether two other vulnerable Democrats in "Red" states — Robert Byrd in West Virginia and Kent Conrad in North Dakota — will have a free ride. The credible challengers — Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Gov. John Hoeven (N.D.) — may not wish to risk uphill races in a climate that is negative for Republicans. If they do not run and win, the Republicans could be looking at an overall loss of two seats that could climb to four.
When Elizabeth Dole made a late run after the 2004 elections to overcome Sen. Norm Coleman’s lead for the NRSC chairmanship, Coleman backers expressed doubt she would succeed at recruiting. But it would be unfair to make Dole the scapegoat. Recruiting responsibility is shared by the White House and the Republican National Committee. Beyond a recruiter’s skills is widespread fear in party circles that 2006 will not be a good year to run as a Republican. That mindset should worry the party’s strategists more than Hillary Clinton’s ideological aberrations.