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April 23, 2014

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Ensign fielding lackluster lineup

Top-notch Senate candidates sitting out

Beyond the Sun

John Ensign has a terrible job, and it got worse this week.

As chairman of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Nevada senator is trying to get Republicans elected to the Senate.

Ensign already faced a challenging environment, with the Republican brand badly damaged in the face of the war in Iraq, a sputtering economy and a series of inside-the-Beltway GOP scandals.

Democrats will pick up at least two seats this fall, most observers expect, and possibly as many as seven.

The outlook turned even bleaker for Ensign after Tuesday’s primaries, which produced a slate of Republican victors who have little chance of winning in November.

“You sometimes have disappointments,” Ensign said. “We had fantastic potential recruits, we just couldn’t sign (them up). It was a year that would be totally different if we could get our A-plus candidates involved.”

The most watched Senate primary Tuesday was the tight race in New Mexico, where two of the state’s Republican representatives battled for retiring Republican Sen. Pete Domenici’s seat. Ensign’s committee did not endorse in that race, and would have preferred to avoid a hard-fought primary.

Moderate Republican Rep. Heather Wilson lost by fewer than 3,000 votes to the more conservative Rep. Steve Pearce, who got a financial assist from the anti-tax Club for Growth — the group that almost derailed Dean Heller’s run for Congress in 2006.

Pearce’s victory was seen as reflecting a regional preference among primary voters who tend to be more conservative rather than a bellwether for voter moods nationwide, leaving Republicans with a more polarizing candidate against Democratic Rep. Tom Udall.

But a few other races that culminated Tuesday show the depth of the party’s problems in recruiting candidates Ensign once hoped would give Democratic stalwarts a scare.

For example:

• In Montana, 85-year-old attorney Bob Kelleher, a perennial candidate who raised less than $5,000, bested a field of five Republicans after Ensign was unable to persuade the state’s at-large Republican congressman, Rep. Dennis Rehberg, to run. Kelleher, who also has run as a Democrat and a Green, will face five-term Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

• In Iowa, the candidate Ensign had talked up lagged in the three-way primary, and apparent winner Chris Reed has “no shot” against four-term Sen. Tom Harkin, says analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.

• In South Dakota, Ensign pledged to mount a challenge to Sen. Tim Johnson, the two-term senator who was absent for much of 2007 recuperating from emergency brain surgery. But Gov. Mike Rounds declined to run, leaving lesser-known state Rep. Joel Dykstra as the Republican candidate going into November.

• And in Massachusetts, Ensign’s hoped-for candidate, Jim Ogonowski, fell 30 signatures short of the 10,000 he needed to qualify for the ballot, The Boston Globe reported. It was a stunning blunder that left little-known Army vet Jeff Beatty as the Republican challenger to Sen. John Kerry.

Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington said Ensign’s committee bears some responsibility for recruiting candidates, but that with President Bush’s low approval ratings, “some of it is out of their control.”

“Sen. Ensign was dealt a very tough hand, not only in the political environment but in the states that are up this cycle,” Gonzales said.

“This is a tough time for Republicans,” he said. “People are dissatisfied — dissatisfied with the job he (Bush) has done, dissatisfied with the direction of the country.”

After seeing Republicans lose 30 House seats and six Senate seats in 2006, he said, “a lot of potential candidates didn’t like their chances in 2008.”

Republicans have 23 seats to defend this fall, a historic high that is due to retirements and the reelection of the robust class of 2002.

Democrats, meanwhile, have just 12 seats to defend, and only one, in Louisiana, is seriously threatened. In Democrats’ sole Senate primary Tuesday, 84-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey easily brushed back a challenge from a Democratic congressman.

Democrats have twice as much cash on hand heading into fall as Republicans.

Even before this week Ensign had stopped touting the “two-seat” campaign on the committee’s Web site — the two seats needed to overcome the Senate’s 51-49 division and give Republicans control.

In fact, Republicans no longer expect to win any Democratic-held seats.

“People up here tell me I’d be a hero if we held 45,” Ensign said Thursday. Getting the majority “would be almost miraculous.”

Ensign was circumspect about Tuesday’s races, but the party still has strong challengers in the open seats Republicans hope to retain in Colorado, Idaho and Nebraska.

He notes that Democrats have had their own troubles recruiting in Oregon and other states they hope to take, a problem he chalks up to the increasingly “ugly” nature of politics.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a possible contender for Ensign’s job next year, said his colleague Ensign faced “a very tough climate.”

“He’s done a really heroic job,” Cornyn said. “It’s just a really challenging year.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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