When freshmen run for Senate: Tom Cotton joins select group

August 7, 2013

How soon is too soon to climb the political ladder?


Increasingly, House freshmen are putting that question to the test. Freshman Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Tuesday became the second House freshman the last two elections to launch a campaign for Senate soon after being sworn into his first term in the House.

And in the coming weeks, freshman Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) may join him.

Immediately -- and predictably -- Democrats sought to portray Cotton as a blindly ambitious young politician, spurning the office he was just elected to and seeking a promotion that is all about me, myself and I. They also remind us that the last freshman to try the same trick -- North Dakota Rep. Rick Berg (R) in 2012 -- turned out to be a less-than-strong candidate and lost.

The question is: How effective is that strategy? And does it matter if someone hasn't even finished a first term in the House?

What we do know is that it's pretty rare for freshmen to be elected to the Senate. In fact, according to the great Smart Politics team, over the last 40 years just two House freshmen have won seats in the Senate: Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) in 1996 and Rod Grams (R-Minn.) in 1994.

What's less clear is how many have tried and failed. (We encourage Fix readers to do the research and report back!)

In 2012, Berg lost an open North Dakota Senate race and freshman Rep. Bob Turner (R-N.Y.) lost in his Senate primary, but before them, the last House freshman to run in a major race was Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) in 2004. No other House freshmen have run since at least 2000, when Grams was defeated for reelection.

So it's not like this happens all that often.

(For what it's worth, three second-term Democratic House members ran for Senate in 2010: Indiana's Brad Ellsworth, Pennsylvania's Joe Sestak and New Hampshire's Paul Hodes. All three lost.)

The reason freshmen don't often run and don't often win is pretty simple: They have less experience. Party leaders always want to go with the proven commodity when it comes to recruitment. It's best to have someone who has not only won lots of races, but has honed his or her skills as a candidate and politician over years of service.

So when winnable Senate races come along, freshmen are generally not even in the recruiting mix.

So why are more freshmen starting to run?

Basically, there are a lot more freshmen than there used to be, period -- with increasing retirements and wave elections having created lots of turnover in the House.

There were 67 freshmen in the House that was sworn in this year, 93 after the 2010 election, 65 after the 2008 election and 54 after the 2006 election. In a 435-member chamber, that amounts to a lot of fresh faces.

In addition, many of the members who represent competitive districts -- i.e. the types of candidates who national parties generally would recruit for Senate races -- have lost their seats in recent years, both on the GOP side and the Democratic side. This has shrunk the pool of potential recruits significantly.

For example, Democrats might have been more likely to recruit former congressman Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) to run for Senate last year before he lost to Berg in 2010. Similarly, Arkansas Republicans in search of a Senate candidate had three other GOP congressmen to choose from, and each of them has served only one more term than Cotton.

The consensus on Berg was that he wasn't a good candidate -- and his favorable and approval ratings throughout the 2012 campaign back up that assertion. Similarly, Majette's 2004 Senate campaign was an uphill battle from the get-go, and she lost badly in a red state.

As for Cotton, Republicans have been singing his political praises for some time now. And Daines looks like he'll be the frontrunner for Montana's open Senate seat if he wants to run, as Democrats are still in search of somebody to run following former governor Brian Schweitzer's (D) decision not to run.

Both Arkansas and Montana rank among the GOP's top four pickup opportunities next year.

Which means the number of freshmen elected in the last 40 years could effectively double after the 2014 election.

Updated at 5:16 p.m. to include Turner.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Chris Cillizza · August 7, 2013