Dems' Senate campaigns marked by internal battles

Monday - 5/20/2013, 3:44am EDT

Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -- Republicans aren't the only ones roiled by internal jostling and recruiting hiccups ahead of next year's midterm elections.

Two top-tier Democratic prospects recently bypassed running for Senate seats in Georgia and South Dakota, highlighting both divisions within the party and its challenge of finding candidates whose ideologies line up with voters in Republican-leaning states.

Democrats say they'll be fine even though Rep. John Barrow in Georgia and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin in South Dakota declined to seek seats left open by retirements. Both are moderate-to-conservative Democrats whose views would seemingly play well in their states, giving the party a chance to win on GOP turf as Democrats look to hang onto power in the Senate. But without them running, Democrats probably will be forced to back more liberal, less-tested nominees who would likely have tougher races.

The circumstances underscore a particular challenge for Democrats: They have a six-seat cushion, counting Vice President Joe Biden's ability to cast tie-breaking votes. That requires Republicans to nearly sweep the most competitive races to gain enough seats for control. But many of the contests are in states where President Barack Obama never won and remains unpopular.

Another hurdle for Democrats: Midterm electorates are generally older, whiter and more Republican than in presidential years.

Georgia Democrats are hoping to recruit Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn and a nonprofit executive in Atlanta. She's expected to announce a decision soon in the race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

In the contest for retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson's South Dakota seat, Democrats' preferred candidate now appears to be Rick Weiland, once a top aide to former Sen. Tom Daschle and twice an unsuccessful candidate for Congress. Weiland launched his bid, with Daschle's backing, amid clamoring about Herseth-Sandlin and Johnson's son, Brendan, a U.S. attorney. State Democrats now say the younger Johnson likely won't run.

"It's a recipe for a challenging campaign," said Steve Dick, a former Daschle aide. "It's a tough race, without a doubt. And it's getting more difficult. We're a red state. We just don't have these opportunities that often."

South Dakota is one of three states where a Democratic senator is retiring in a state Obama lost last November; the others are Montana and West Virginia. There also are Democratic retirements in the swing-voting states of Iowa and Michigan, which Obama won.

Republicans also are aiming at four Democratic incumbents in states Republican Mitt Romney won: Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Georgia, which went for Romney by 8 percentage points over Obama, has one of two GOP seats opened by retirements; the other is in Nebraska, a virtual lock for Republicans.

Democrats say they can challenge Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, but they haven't yet recruited a top-tier candidate even though the Republican is unpopular at home.

At the National Republican Senatorial Committee, spokesman Brad Dayspring mocked Democrats for failing at a strategy he says was clear: Get conservative Democrats in Republican-leaning states. But Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, dismissed the notion of an internal Democratic struggle or recruiting woes, and pointed to divisive primaries shaping up for Republicans in several states.

Clearly, Democrats are left with a tricky balance as they look for candidates with this criteria: Satisfy core Democratic voters, ensure successful fundraising and reach independents who voted for Romney and, before him, John McCain and George W. Bush.

Some Democrats thought Barrow and Herseth-Sandlin satisfied those standards.

Barrow is the Deep South's last white Democrat in the House, and he's beaten well-financed GOP nominees in a House district drawn to ensure his defeat. He's a gun owner who voted against the 2010 health care overhaul and voted to hold Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, in contempt of Congress. He supported the so-called fiscal cliff deal between Obama and congressional Republicans, and successfully wooed thousands of Romney supporters in his last campaign.

But the way Barrow keeps his job could explain why he abandoned the possibility of a promotion.

"His profile is more appropriate to his congressional district than to a statewide run, particularly for metro Atlanta, where most of the votes are in the progressive base," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat from the city.

Some Democrats had feared that Barrow would have drawn a primary opponent, and both national and state Democrats concede that the party's best chance for a Georgia upset is to avoid a divisive primary, while leaving a crowded GOP field to spend money and throw punches.