A new poll showing a potential Senate candidate in strong position to challenge an incumbent in a key state usually draws keen interest from smart strategists and analysts.
But Wednesday’s release of the latest Iowa Poll drew smirks and outright derision from some of the smartest people in politics, mostly because it tested the popularity of Democrat Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor.
Not surprisingly, Vilsack, by a more than a 2-to-1 margin, remains popular with Iowans despite last running for office in 2002. He has not yet ruled out a race against Sen. Joni Ernst (R) next year. Hence the groans from across the Internet.
“Ted Strickland, Evan Bayh, Phil Bredesen,” tweeted Nathan Gonzales, an independent political analyst who is editor of Inside Elections, naming three Democrats who recently lost Senate races. “But I’m sure Democrats will tell me this time will be different.”
Those three are part of a trend in which Senate Democrats have repeatedly fallen back on the political version of an old comfortable shoe. They are usually former governors or former senators — sometimes both — who last ran for office more than a decade ago. They all started off in seemingly strong positions, some in states that had drifted far away from Democrats in recent years.
But one by one, over the course of the modern campaign of instant information moving across the Internet, all of them lost — most by double-digit margins.
That’s why, as they head into 2020, some Democrats are searching for candidates with fresh faces and interesting backgrounds that are short on legislative voting records.
In the 2018 midterms, House Democrats had a smashing success with dozens of first-time candidates coming from the military, intelligence agencies and prosecutors’ offices. Those Democrats provided a large chunk of the pickups that led to a 40-seat gain and swept the party into the House majority.
Senate Democrats still defend almost all of the political veterans they recruited for races they lost, particularly someone like Bredesen, a former Tennessee governor. Despite losing by 11 percentage points, Bredesen was popular enough that he forced Republicans to spend heavily to elect Sen. Marsha Blackburn, including $4 million from outside GOP groups in the final week of the race.
Some say it’s the 2020 Senate map that is forcing Democrats to think creatively, given the lack of a political bench in states like North Carolina.
The prototype might be Mark Kelly, 55, the former space shuttle pilot and naval aviator who is married to former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). For the past eight years, Kelly helped lead a gun-control group, and he launched a Senate bid from Arizona earlier this month.
He raised more than $1 million on the first day of his campaign.
Other potential candidates include Jaime Harrison, a former state Democratic Party chairman who is trying to make South Carolina the first state to have two black senators at the same time. If Vilsack does not jump into the Iowa race, many strategists will turn to the two Democrats who just won previously held GOP seats, Reps. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer.
Democrats are considering some do-over candidates, but those are newcomers who ran strong races last year only to fall just short.
Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race, has met with party officials in Washington about a Senate bid in 2020 — a courtship that also included Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) selecting her to deliver the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address this month.
In early February, Schumer met with Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman considering a challenge to Sen. John Cornyn (R) next year and forgoing a possible presidential bid, in the wake of his 2018 campaign that just missed ousting Sen. Ted Cruz (R).
Three other possible contenders are Democrats who narrowly lost House races last year: Amy McGrath, the first female Marine to fly combat missions, considering a race against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); and, if other big names pass on races in their states, J.D. Scholten of Iowa and MJ Hegar of Texas.
Republicans are sure to label these candidates retreads and losers who are grasping for a win, but each demonstrated an ability to raise money, generate excitement from voters and outperform expectations in difficult political terrain.
Gonzales said it is a better foundation for a modern Senate campaign than pulling someone like Vilsack, 68, out of retirement.
“It’s natural to go to the people who have won there before, particularly if it’s a difficult state,” he said in a follow-up interview. “Recovering politicians bring voting records to defend and a sense that their time has passed, at a time when voters are skeptical of politicians and looking for fresh faces.”
Senate Republicans learned this lesson heading into 2014 when after four straight losing election cycles, they recruited a crop of relative newcomers. They picked up nine Democratic seats, claiming the majority, with just one former governor and only one GOP candidate who had served more than two terms in the House.
Democrats, in reviewing recent elections, privately contend that authenticity is the most important trait for victory, pointing to three incumbents who won in what should have been very tough races last year: Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Jon Tester (Mont.).
When it comes to flipping seats, however, Democrats have largely done so with relative newcomers. In the past six years, they have won five seats from GOP hands: Sens. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Doug Jones (Ala.), Jacky Rosen (Nev.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).
Of those five, Hassan is the only previous statewide candidate, having won two terms as governor immediately before wining the 2016 Senate race.
Duckworth was an Army helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in combat in Iraq. Jones was a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for a previously unsolved 1963 church bombing.
Voters, more and more, are turning away from the comfortable old shoe and want something fresh.
“When you take a step back, it’s tough not to see a trend,” Gonzales said.