For GOP, Election Anxiety Mounts

President Bush is introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) at a campaign event in Charlotte. Dole is heading the GOP congressional recruiting effort.
President Bush is introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) at a campaign event in Charlotte. Dole is heading the GOP congressional recruiting effort. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Charles Babington and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 10, 2005

Republican politicians in multiple states have recently decided not to run for Senate next year, stirring anxiety among Washington operatives about the effectiveness of the party's recruiting efforts and whether this signals a broader decline in GOP congressional prospects.

Prominent Republicans have passed up races in North Dakota and West Virginia, both GOP-leaning states with potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Earlier, Republican recruiters on Capitol Hill and at the White House failed to lure their first choices to run in Florida, Michigan and Vermont.

These setbacks have prompted grumbling. Some Republican operatives, including some who work closely with the White House, privately point to what they regard as a lackluster performance by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the group that heads fundraising and candidate recruitment for GOP senators.

But some strategists more sympathetic to Dole point the finger right back. With an unpopular war in Iraq, ethical controversies shadowing top Republicans in the House and Senate, and President Bush suffering the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, the waters look less inviting to politicians deciding whether to plunge into an election bid. Additionally, some Capitol Hill operatives complain that preoccupied senior White House officials have been less engaged in candidate recruitment than they were for the 2002 and 2004 elections. These sources would speak only on background because of the sensitivity of partisan strategies.

Historically, Senate and House races are often won or lost in the year before the election, as a party's prospects hinge critically on whether the most capable politicians decide to invest time, money and personal pride in a competitive race. Often, this commitment takes some coaxing.

That is why Dole met twice with Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and a third time with Capito and her father, former governor Arch A. Moore Jr., in an effort to persuade her to take on Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D). Bush won 56 percent of the vote in West Virginia last year, making many think Byrd, who will turn 88 next month, can be halted in his bid for a record ninth term. But last week, Capito said she has decided to stay put and seek election to a fourth House term.

Last month, White House political strategist Karl Rove flew to Bismarck to implore the North Dakota's popular Republican governor, John Hoeven, to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D). Rove could argue with some compelling numbers: Bush won 63 percent of the state's presidential votes last year, and Hoeven trounced his Democratic opponents in 2000 and 2004. But the governor said no thanks, and Republicans concede they have no strong second choice.

Perhaps no state has frustrated the GOP elite more than Florida, where Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is trying for a second term after winning his first with 51 percent of the vote. After failing to persuade Rep. Katherine Harris to stay out of the race, GOP leaders began a public search for an alternative candidate. State House Speaker Allan Bense was courted by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) before bowing out. Dole took a private plane to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade conservative commentator and former Florida representative Joe Scarborough to make the race.

Many Democrats and some independents revile Harris for the role she played, as Florida secretary of state, in favoring George W. Bush in the 2000 recount process. But she has enough hard-core conservative fans to scare away other Republican Senate hopefuls, and Democrats are gleefully watching the dispute roil their rivals.

No Republican who has opted out of a 2006 candidacy has publicly cited the level of support from national Republicans or the general political environment as a reason. Potential candidates have a variety of factors figuring into whether to make a race. Still, to some analysts, the decisions suggest deeper currents at work.

"Is it poor recruiting or a bad environment? Probably both," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the independent Cook Political Report.

A senior Republican familiar with the recruiting process agreed that the climate has shifted for the GOP because of a confluence of problems from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina and high gasoline prices: "Looking at polls from June or July and then looking at them now, the deterioration is really bad."

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