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Senate Democrats are building a stellar 2016 recruiting class

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Senate Democrats are having a very good 2015.

The party has recruited top-tier candidates in each of the four most competitive seats up next November and have another four solid candidates in Republican-held seats that could help them expand the national playing field as they try to retake the Senate after two years in the minority.  In most of these states -- though not all -- the preferred Democratic nominee has no serious primary challenge or even the prospect of one looming.

Consider:

* In Nevada, former state attorney general Catherine Cortez-Masto, the preferred candidate of retiring Sen. Harry Reid, is in the race and Rep. Dina Titus isn't.

* In Florida, Rep. Patrick Murphy, a young, aggressive candidate and prolific fundraiser, is running. (The prospect of Rep. Alan Grayson primarying Murphy complicates this recruitment win for Democrats.)

* In Illinois, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a wounded Iraq war vet, is in. Rep. Bill Foster is out.

*In Wisconsin, former senator Russ Feingold is running.

That quartet of seats are rated as "toss-ups" by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. And, in each, Democrats have a legitimate "A" recruit. That's pretty darned good.

But the Democratic recruiting successes are even more impressive than that. Dig a layer deeper -- the states Cook rates as "Lean Republican" or "Likely Republican" -- and you see that Democrats have done a very good job of finding serious candidates in them. To name a few: former  governor Ted Strickland in Ohio, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona, Secretary of State Jason Kander in Missouri and, just yesterday, former representative Baron Hill in Indiana.

None of those candidates are sure things. And all of them may wind up losing. But what they are is serious candidates who, in the event of a slip by the GOP incumbent or a breeze blowing at the backs of Democrats nationally, could win. Expanding the playing field when you need either four (if Hillary Clinton wins the White House) or five (if she doesn't) seats to get back the majority is critical. And recruits like Kirkpatrick and Hill show that Democrats are keeping that in mind even with the election 17 months off.

It's also worth mentioning that Democrats have a few potential national stars running for Senate in states that heavily favor their side. California Attorney General Kamala Harris is  cutting a high profile nationally; either Rep. Chris Van Hollen or Rep. Donna Edwards could be a big star if they win the Maryland Democratic primary.

Now, it's not all peaches and cream for Democrats on the recruiting front.  They are still waiting on go/no go decisions from former senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Gov. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire.  If Hagan and Hassan don't run -- Hassan seems more likely to do so than Hagan at the moment -- there's no obvious next person in line.

The party's biggest lingering problem, however, is in Pennsylvania, where national Democrats have made no secret of the fact that they would prefer former representative Joe Sestak not be their nominee against Sen. Pat Toomey. (Sestak ran against Toomey in 2010 and lost.) But attempts to lure Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro into the contest have failed, and it's not clear that there's another good anti-Sestak option out there.

If Democrats get Hagan and Hassan -- and find someone credible not named "Sestak" in Pennsylvania -- they will have put together a truly outstanding class.  Compare that to Republicans' struggles thus far to contest the handful of opportunity seats for them; Rep. Mike Coffman just said no in Colorado, and the party has yet to convince Rep. Joe Heck to run in Nevada.

Democrats' recruiting wins are much needed given that the playing field in 2016 -- 24 Republican-held seats to just 10 for Democrats -- is far more favorable to the party than the 2018 landscape.  This is a "win now" sort of moment for Democrats. If they can't take back the majority next November, it might be a while.

Almost no one pays attention to Senate races until even-numbered years.  But Senate races are often won in the recruiting battles of odd-numbered years. Right now, Democrats have to feel good about where they stand in that fight.

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