From today's edition of The Hotline:
BATTLE FOR THE SENATE: Could GOP Target Red-State Dems Once More?
Senate GOPers believe that the defeat of Min. Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) 11/2 "sends a chilling message" to Dems who must stand for re-election in '06 in "red states." The theory of heightened Dem vulnerability "will be tested in less than two years," as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) stand for re-election in states that Pres. Bush carried. Dems "acknowledge that the defeat" of Daschle "was a stunning blow and a cause for reflection. But they add that Daschle's position as leader of his party seeking re-election in a presidential year made for a unique set of circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated."
Daschle media consultant Karl Struble: "You can overanalyze South Dakota, because in this case you had somebody who was a national leader. ... (For someone like Daschle, it is) easier to ascribe the national party agenda" to them. Struble added, however, that "there is no doubt that being a Democrat in red states make you an endangered species." Dem pollster Fred Yang: "Democrats should all take pause [to consider] what happened to our candidates in the red states."
To be sure, Sens. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) must run in states won by John Kerry (D). "The pivotal -- but unknown -- factor in each of these contests will be whether the party campaign committees can successfully convince top-tier candidates to challenge the incumbents." In '04, GOP gains "could have been far broader had they not failed to cajole first-rate recruits" into ND, NV, or AR. And in SD, "if the GOP had put up any candidate other than" ex-Rep. John Thune (R), "Daschle would likely have been re-elected easily."
"However, finding a top-tier candidate to run against a long-serving and generally popular incumbent is never easy -- especially in such small-population states" as NE, ND, and NM. "In most small states, everyone in the political elite knows one another, and many ordinary citizens know members of the political elite. As a result, there is strong peer pressure against taking on a powerful figure, even if he or she belongs to a different party: If the challenger loses, he or she risks losing not just time and money but also friendships and working relationships."
At this point, only Nelson "appears to have a top-tier opponent." Gov. Mike Johanns (R-NE) "has repeatedly expressed an interest in running and has been encouraged to do so" by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), "who has made no secret of his distaste for Nelson." The "strength of a Johanns candidacy, coupled with Bush's" 35-pt margin in NE, "makes for tough sledding for Nelson." Nelson spokesperson David DiMartino: "We are realistic that we have an uphill fight in a conservative state, but Ben Nelson's record reflects Nebraska values and we will be proud to defend it." On "traditional wedge issues, Nelson is among the most conservative in his Caucus. He is anti-abortion, pro-gun and voted" to end filibusters of judges and in support of a ban on same-sex marriage. DiMartino: "Senator Daschle's challenge was he was forced to defend the positions of every member of the Caucus." Struble: "Ben Nelson is no Tom Daschle. You can't mistake them on wedge issues or tax policy."
Outside of NE, "it's less clear who's going to run against" the red-state Dems. Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) "appears to be the leading candidate" to take on Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), though LG Toni Jennings (R), '98 candidate/AG Charlie Crist (R), CFO Tom Gallagher (R) and ex-FL House Speaker Daniel Webster (R) "are also mentioned." Several names on that list will opt for the GOV race instead.
GOP hopes in ND "appear entirely contingent" on Gov. John Hoeven (R-ND). Hoeven "has given no indication of an interest in challenging" Sen. Kent Conrad (D), "a situation that's reminiscent of the failed GOP attempts to recruit" ex-Gov. Ed Schafer (R-ND) to challenge Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) in '04.
GOPers "seem even less likely to field serious challengers to Byrd and Bingaman, assuming they run for re-election." Byrd "is such a legend" in WV "and in the Senate that few would dare cross him. Bingaman doesn't have the stature of Byrd," but the NM GOP "is hobbled by a relatively weak bench, a reality that may give Bingaman a free pass" (Cillizza, Roll Call, 11/22).