When Republicans bring themselves to a full, frothing panic about 2016, they don't just worry about Donald Trump losing the presidential race. They fret that he will drag down the party's Senate candidates, or even — incredibly — eliminate its historically large House majority.
Today, Trump's party got a dose of aspirin from an unlikely place — the front page of the New York Times. In "Democrats’ Weak Bench Undermines Hope of Taking Back Senate," Jennifer Steinhauer posits that "just as Senate Republicans blew their chances in 2010 and 2012 before finally taking control in 2014, Democrats find themselves hobbled by less-than-stellar candidates."
It's a strange story. What's true, and has worried Democrats since 2010, is that the Republicans' wave of victories in midterms eliminated a generation of political talent. (Post-2011 gerrymandering, which Republicans mostly controlled and which closed off some chances for Democratic comebacks, should always be mentioned here.) Democrats got lucky in 2016, as Trump humiliated some of the Generation X stars who were supposed to lead the GOP into the future.*
The fact remains that the GOP has more young stars ready to win races over the next 10 to 20 years. That keeps Democrats up at night, but it's not news. Hence the "blown recruiting" frame, which is an awkward fit for what's actually happening in this year's Senate races. The minority party, which started with a decent map, is positioned to beat more Republican incumbents than it did throughout Barack Obama's presidency.** The Democrats' candidates in Illinois, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, top recruits currently leading in public polls, are not mentioned at all.
It's true that Pennsylvania's Katie McGinty and Nevada's Catherine Cortez Masto, the lead examples in the story, have not "caught fire." It's also true that both were their party's favored candidates. Retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) guided Masto's career and encouraged her into the Senate race, a fact that the Nevada Republican Party has used against her.
In Pennsylvania and Washington, the Democratic establishment harbored deep reservations (bordering on loathing) for Joe Sestak, the former congressman who nearly defeated Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in 2010 after beating party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter in the primary. They pulled McGinty, who had never won an election, through a three-way primary and into a win.***
Why does that matter? The Republican Party's blown opportunities in 2010 and 2012 were exacerbated by ugly primaries. While party-favored candidates such as George Allen (Va.), Denny Rehberg (Mont.), and Rick Berg (N.D.) lost, sure-thing candidates like Delaware's Mike Castle and Indiana's Richard Lugar were felled by tea party-backed opponents. Republicans self-corrected in 2014, but just this year, they failed to recruit a top-shelf candidate against Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), then watched as a stumbling second-choice candidate was felled by the hard-right Darryl Glenn, a result that took the race off the map.
Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment pitched a perfect game. In Illinois and Ohio, Rep. Tammy Duckworth and former governor Ted Strickland both drew primary opponents. In Illinois, in particular, Republicans tried to elevate the primary challenger, a former Chicago Urban League chief executive who argued that Duckworth was taking black voters for granted. But both Duckworth and Strickland cleared 65 percent of the vote. In Pennsylvania, McGinty fought from a double-digit deficit to a 10-point win. The rebellion in the Democrats' presidential primary was not echoed in Senate races; voters did basically what the establishment wanted.
You could argue, and some progressives have argued, that the party leaders made bad calls in these primaries. The 2016 Democratic class is relentlessly on-message, and in a scenario where McGinty loses and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) loses his Senate race, it will be universally agreed that the party foisted bad candidates on their voters.****
But it's tough to look at the 2016 field and say Democrats failed in recruiting. The Times notes that Iowa Democrats "settled on 72-year-old Patty Judge" to challenge Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.). But Judge, the state's former lieutenant governor, is the first statewide elected official Grassley has ever faced. He has never won less than 64 percent of the vote in a reelection bid; he is now polling around 10 points ahead of Judge. This is not a story of failed Democratic recruiting, but of Democratic recruiting forcing a Republican to spend resources.
Crucially, Democrats only convinced Judge to run five months ago. They convinced Evan Bayh to run in Indiana just six weeks ago. There were two waves of recruitment, one in early 2015 and one this year. In the first wave, which included Duckworth, Arizona's Ann Kirkpatrick and Missouri's Secretary of State Jason Kander, Democrats bet on presidential-year turnout and the popularity of Hillary Clinton to make tough races winnable. Over the next year, Clinton's post-secretary of state glow faded. Then came Donald Trump, who filled Democrats with new confidence — or even cockiness — about what could happen downballot.
Had the party failed at recruiting, it might be leaving races uncontested. It didn't. There's a credible Democratic candidate in every presidential swing state. The party is staring at a brutal 2018 midterm map, and it has no short-term solution to the gerrymandering-enabled wipeout of its suburban legislative bench. This year, remarkably, they've held off the crisis.
*In 2015, it was common to hear Republicans joke about the age or energy level of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Back then, the smart bet was that the GOP primary electorate would produce a 40-something nominee such as Marco Rubio, Scott Walker or Ted Cruz, to draw a stark generational contrast. That ... did not happen.
**Scott Brown's 2012 defeat was the only general election loss by a Republican senator since 2009.
***One reason for McGinty's emergence was that the Democrats actually did grow their bench in the state, by electing Kathleen Kane in the 2012 race for attorney general. She was set for stardom. Instead, she sunk into a morass of scandal and resigned this month.
****For much of the year, Murphy also expected to face an equally unknown congressman in the general. Instead, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reneged on his pledge to retire if he lost the presidential primary, giving Murphy a universally known and well-funded opponent.