When Republicans took a look at the 2004 Senate races, they were drooling at the prospects of significantly boosting their 51-49 advantage. However, several rejections from possible high-profile GOP candidates have forced the party to temper its high hopes.
"This has to be considered nothing but a disastrous recruiting period for Senate Republicans," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said about the GOP's failure to capitalize on several potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents up for re-election.
Democrats are starting out with a significant disadvantage in 2004, having to defend 19 of the 34 seats up next year. And of those 19, there are several that Republicans were hoping to snatch from the Dems by putting up well-known, battle-tested candidates.
"They were talking about … picking up five, six, seven seats," said Woodhouse. "Now they've narrowed their expectations."
In and out of the Republicans' sights is Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, a liberal Democrat in not-so-liberal Nevada. Reid barely survived a challenge in his 1998 re-election bid, winning by only 428 votes. But it looks like the GOP is writing off this potential pickup after popular U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons declined a White House request to jump into the race.
Wisconsin is another state where the GOP hoped to kick out an incumbent Democrat: Sen. Russ Feingold, who eked out victories in 1998 (51 percent) and 1992 (53 percent). Again, rising-star U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan turned down national Republican requests and Health and Human Services Secretary/former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson said he's not going to run either.
Well-known Republicans have declined to run in Washington State, Arkansas and North Dakota, too. U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., turned down a White House request to challenge Democratic Sen. Patty Murray; Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Drug Enforcement Administration head Asa Hutchinson both said "no" to running against Sen. Blanche Lincoln; and former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schaefer won't take on Sen. Byron Dorgan.
"This has been a headache for them," American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Norm Ornstein told CBS News. "In Senate races especially, the quality of candidates is a hugely important factor."
Not only does the lack of a high-profile opponent turn a potential toss-up race into an easy re-election bid but, as Ornstein points out, it allows the incumbent's party to divert precious dollars into other races.
Despite all the rejections, things are actually looking pretty good for the Republicans, who start out with two clear advantages: a majority in the Senate and a smaller number of races to worry about. Additionally, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen points out that the Democrats have had their own share of recruiting problems in the Colorado, Georgia, Kansas and Missouri Senate races.
"Neither party has capitalized on their opportunities," said Ornstein, "but the Republicans have had more disappointment than the Democrats."
Ornstein also suggested that the GOP rejections are not the result of some national trend, such as a Bush backlash, but more likely due to the fact that a lot of potential candidates just don't want to deal with the rigors of raising millions of dollars for a Senate race.
"Running for statewide office is unpleasant these days," Ornstein said.
Rep. Gibbons implied as much when he declined to run against Sen. Reid in Nevada. "I do know that to devote 14 months to a partisan political campaign, given the immediate responsibilities I have today, and the significant challenges we face, simply is not in the best interests of Nevadans, Nevada or our nation," Gibbons said.
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar alluded to the same thing when he announced he wasn't running for the open seat there. "It would have been a difficult road," he said in May, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. "(Politics) is a blood sport in Illinois."
The NRSC's Allen said political observers can talk all they want about recruitment problems on both sides, but ultimately, "We're going to be judged by what happens on election night."
And while the Republicans' chances of gaining five to seven seats are fairly slim now, Allen feels there's a good chance they could add to their total of 51 in the Senate.
"I'm confident we'll extend our majority," Allen said.
The Democrats are going to have their hands full hanging on to three open seats in the south (North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia), which could negate any gains they may get by taking GOP seats in Illinois, Alaska and Oklahoma, which may be within the Dems' reach but aren't shoo-ins.
In North Carolina, former Clinton White House chief of staff and unsuccessful 2002 candidate Erskine Bowles will look to keep Sen. John Edwards' seat for the Democrats against Rep. Richard Burr. North Carolina, however, is expected to vote for President Bush next year, enhancing Burr's chances. South Carolina Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold on to retiring Sen. Ernest Hollings' seat in that Republican-leaning state. And in Georgia, Democrats are hoping Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, will jump into the race to succeed retiring Sen. Zell Miller.
The Democrats may also be adding two more Southern states to their list of worries: Florida and Louisiana.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who would probably coast to re-election, is considering retiring after his failed presidential bid. And there are rumors that popular Sen. John Breaux, D-La., may vacate his seat if a Democrat is elected governor there on Nov. 15. The new governor would replace Breaux with another Democrat, however the new senator would still be up in 2004 and could have trouble duplicating Breaux's wide support; he received 64 and 73 percent of the vote in his last two elections.
While Ornstein agrees that the Republicans still have an advantage considering their current two-seat edge, he says their success ultimately depends on the national tide. "If the Democrats get a modest wind, they could hold all their seats or even gain a seat or two," he said. "If the Republicans have the wind, they'll gain at least a couple of seats, even though they might have had a chance to add four or five."
By Steve Chaggaris