To Hold Senate Majority, Democrats Target the Most Conservative States in the Country

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When Ashley Judd announced she wasn’t running for the Senate, Republicans greeted the news with glee, sending out a list of 10 other Democratic recruits uninterested in running against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But privately, leading Democratic officials were also cheering. Most viewed the liberal actress’s decision as good news for their chances in Kentucky, allowing a more-moderate candidate, such as Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, to run instead.

The efforts to woo a moderate Democrat to defeat McConnell are part of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s plans to compete in the most inhospitable territory for Democrats -- for open seats in Georgia, South Dakota, West Virginia, and possibly, even in Kentucky against the powerful and well-funded Senate minority leader. Facing a challenging political landscape in 2014, the party is close to landing credible candidates in all of those states.

The DSCC doesn’t divulge details about its recruitment strategy, arguing that many of the media reports about its preferred candidates are hogwash. But it’s clear that, in the spirit of former Chairman Chuck Schumer, it is playing an active role behind-the-scenes to ensure that electable Democrats emerge as nominees.

Already the committee is boasting that Georgia is their best pickup opportunity; the field of Republican candidates there for the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss currently looks underwhelming. Moderate Rep. John Barrow, one of the few Democrats who could put the seat in play, now sounds as open as ever to running.

In West Virginia, party officials are excited about the looming candidacy of lawyer Nick Preservati, a first-time candidate who is planning to distance himself from national Democratic positions on energy and run in the mold of popular Sen. Joe Manchin. Preservati has family ties to the coal industry, which could defang attacks from Republicans eager to tie the nominee to the White House’s environmental regulations.

And in South Dakota, party officials are working to avoid a potential primary between two well-known Democrats: U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, the son of Sen. Tim Johnson, and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who proved her bipartisan appeal, winning statewide elections to the House from 2004 to 2010. The committee won’t talk about what it’s doing, but South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf saidhe expects the party to coalesce behind one Democrat and avoid a messy primary.

“It’s [finding] a candidate who’s in line with their state and will do what’s best for the people of their state,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky. “The main point is that Democrats know how to win in red states.”

To be sure, Democrats start out as underdogs in all four of these red-state races and may end up struggling to compete in any of them. But given that Republicans need to net six Senate seats to take the majority, even one upset victory behind enemy lines would be crucial.

That’s what made the prospect of the party rallying behind Judd so at odds with the committee’s strategy. The DSCC was publicly noncommittal about her potential candidacy, even after meeting with her and without any other candidates actively looking to run. In the run-up to the 2012 election, the committee never hesitated to telegraph its support for favored candidates, even if they faced the prospect of a primary. And only after Judd announced she wasn't running before the committee released a radio ad blasting McConnell -- a signal they expect to aggressively contest the race, but with Grimes or a moderate candidate better suited to the Kentucky electorate.

The Democratic activity in deeply conservative states stands in contrast, at least for now, to the lack of GOP movement against three Democratic senators in battleground states. Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mark Udall of Colorado have no announced Republican opponents – even though all represent states where Obama won less than 53 percent of the vote in 2012.

"The DSCC is getting used to having tough cycles in terms of the map," Barasky said, "but if you look at the math, the path to six for [Republicans] is daunting." 

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