With five weeks to go before an Election Day that could swing control of the Senate, leaders in both parties are already looking ahead to 2016, plotting to determine who should pilot their campaign efforts next time around.
Capitol Hill is rumbling with rumors about who will take over for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee head Michael Bennet and National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Jerry Moran in an election likely to look very different than this one. The 2016 map will heavily favor Democrats, a reversal of the 2014 election landscape. Just 10 Democrats are seeking reelection in 2016, largely in safely blue seats, while Republicans will have to protect 24 of their incumbents, roughly a third of whom are in blue or purple states.
After a tough cycle for Democrats, the chairmanship of the DSCC in an election year that's very likely to go their way could be a prize position. Chairing the NRSC presents a much more difficult prospect, but could provide a solid boost for a Republican seeking a bigger national profile, not to mention national donor contacts. Given the difficulty of the landscape, expectations for next cycle's NRSC chair will be low.
Though final decisions are on hold until after the 2014 elections, several names are already being floated for both jobs, and a few members have privately indicated their interest in taking the helm:
Christopher Coons, Del.
Coons' name is mentioned frequently by Democrats on the Hill as a potential DSCC chairman. According to several aides, Coons has privately expressed interest in running the committee, though a spokesman said that the senator is "focused on his own campaign right now."
Coons is from a blue state, is well-respected by his colleagues, and proved his fundraising chops during the 2010 campaign, when he defeated tea-party candidate Christine O'Donnell in a special election. After what looks to be an easy reelection this year (Coons led his opponent by 25 points in a recent University of Delaware poll), he is well-positioned to take over the committee next year.
Kirsten Gillibrand, N.Y.
Gillibrand is at the top of many Democrats' wish lists to take over the DSCC in 2016. She's young, intelligent, and already has the kind of national profile that could excite donors in a year when many deep-pocketed Democrats will be more focused on the presidential race. Gillibrand is one of the Senate's top fundraisers, after Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and her ties to the legal and banking industries in New York could help her to bring in money for Democratic candidates next cycle.
"She is ambitious, and the DSCC would be a good way to be a heroine and advance in the Senate Dems' leadership ranks," said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. "With so many vulnerable GOP incumbents up in 2016, the next chair will either keep Dems in the majority or put them back in control. She has access to big-money circles in NYC and she has a safe seat. With Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo from New York in line as presidential candidates, the DSCC may be the only chance she has to get ahead."
There's one problem: It's not clear that she's interested. Gillibrand's office did not respond to requests for comment on this story and, as other Democratic aides noted, she has higher ambitions. If Hillary Clinton does not run for president in 2016, Gillibrand is expected to take a hard look at the race. And others speculated that even if Clinton does run, Gillibrand would rather work on Team Hillary than at the DSCC.
Amy Klobuchar, Minn.
Like Gillibrand, it's clear that Klobuchar has higher ambitions. After just over one term in the Senate, she's already been floated as a potential presidential candidate, though it's unlikely that she'd make a bid for the White House as early as 2016. A term at the DSCC could help raise her national profile and put her in contact with some of the party's biggest donors.
Klobuchar is from a purple state that will be a major focus for the party's presidential nominee next cycle. She has impressed Democrats with her fundraising abilities and is a solid messenger. Many Democrats have speculated that if Debbie Wasserman Schultz leaves the Democratic National Committee next cycle, it's likely that Harry Reid will pick a woman to lead the DSCC. He could certainly do worse than Klobuchar.
Tammy Baldwin, Wis.
Baldwin is the least experienced member on this list, having entered the Senate in 2013. But her youth and personal story have catapulted her into position as a serious contender for the job. As a woman and the first openly gay senator, Baldwin could help the party to turn out its base in 2016, aiding not only Senate candidates but the party's presidential nominee as well.
What's more, she hails from Wisconsin, which has increasingly acted as a swing state in recent presidential years. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson will be one of Democrats' top targets in 2016, and having a DSCC chair from his home state could help the party to recapture Johnson's seat.
Baldwin's inexperience could work against her in a major year for the party, however, particularly if Republicans take over the Senate this year. Baldwin is hardly an attack dog, like some past DSCC chairs including Chuck Schumer. But Michael Bennet and Patty Murray, who are more aligned with Baldwin in personality, have both been praised for their work at the committee.
Sheldon Whitehouse, R.I.
Once again, Whitehouse's name is being floated to take over the DSCC. The Rhode Islander was mentioned as a possible candidate to take the position in 2012, but he ultimately turned down the job. This time around, the map is much more favorable to Democrats and aides say that the senator has expressed some interest. Whitehouse's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Whitehouse is from a solidly blue state and his advocacy for Democratic policies, most notably the Buffett Rule, has earned him wide respect among Democrats. He was even mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee by Vice President Joe Biden. Rhode Island is small and hardly a swing state, but Whitehouse is widely considered a rising star in the party, and he could boost his national image with a stint at the DSCC.
Al Franken, Minn.
Assuming he defeats GOP challenger Mike McFadden this year, Franken would be an appealing pick, Democrats say. His Hollywood ties, which translate to fundraising potential, are seriously appealing. His leadership PAC got more donations from the entertainment industry than any other sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But taking over the DSCC also means becoming one of the party's top messengers. Democrats have no doubt that Franken can do it, but he is notorious on Capitol Hill for avoiding national reporters. His focus on his home state and local press have helped him in Minnesota, but he lacks experience with national media, and that has some Democrats assuming he'll take a pass. If he wants it, Franken will have to make a quick about-face to take over the DSCC.
Dean Heller, Nev.
Like Baldwin, Heller represents a state with one of the biggest Senate opportunities for his party in 2016. Whether Harry Reid is defeatable—or even seeking reelection, though he says he is—is an open question. But like Mitch McConnell was for Democrats in 2014, Harry Reid is too sweet of a target for Republicans to pass up. Having a native Nevadan at the helm of the party's campaign committee could aid in those efforts. Heller also has experience in the House and a good reputation among many of its members, who are frequently viewed as top-tier Senate recruits, according to GOP strategists.
But Heller has spent the last few years working more closely with Democrats, aligning himself with Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, for example, on unemployment insurance this year. The question for Heller will be whether he's prepared to do some damage to his burgeoning reputation as a centrist in the mold of Olympia Snowe to run what promises to be a nasty, national campaign for his party.
Asked about Heller's interest, spokesman Neal Patel emphasized the political work the Nevadan is already doing.
"Right now, Senator Heller's top priority is to help Republicans take over the Senate and make Mitch McConnell the majority leader," Patel said. "He knows personally how important it is to remain focused on the task at hand. To that end, Senator Heller has given nearly $400,000 to Republican candidates across the country this cycle and will continue working to help ensure they are elected."
Bob Corker, Tenn.
A one-time entrepreneur, with connections to the deep-pocketed business world, Corker was rumored to be in the hunt to chair the committee for the 2014 cycle. His name is circulating again among Republican political operatives ahead of 2016. In addition to his fundraising abilities, he is viewed as a strong recruiter, having deep ties to both the pro-Israel lobby, as the senior Republican on Foreign Relations, and to the financial world as a member of the Banking Committee.
But whether Corker, who relishes the art of compromise, wants the position is unclear. If the Republicans take the majority and he holds the Foreign Relations gavel, he may choose instead to focus on international affairs rather than the daunting domestic political challenge that will face Republicans in 2016.
"He has proven several times on national issues that he has strong ideas and understands what it takes to lead. I have no doubt he could bring that same insight and leadership to the NRSC and help the party going forward," said Hamilton County GOP chairman Tony Sanders.
Roger Wicker, Miss.
Wicker's chief selling point, say Republican strategists, is his connection to the politically influential Barbour family, which helped Sen. Thad Cochran defeat Chris McDaniel in Mississippi this cycle. Haley Barbour, then governor of Mississippi, appointed Wicker to the Senate after Trent Lott resigned. Wicker also supported Cochran in his tough primary fight, which was aided in large part by Haley's nephew, Henry Barbour. And those who know him also say he's a team player who regularly gives to the NRSC. "He's just doing everything he can to restore the Republican majority," said a Republican Senate aide.
But the fact that Wicker hails from Mississippi could also pose a problem: As one of the poorest states in the country, it does not provide a broad fundraising base.
A freshman Republican
Though this is a long shot, given the daunting map facing the party in 2016, some Republicans are suggesting that a first-term senator might be recruited to lead the committee. The thinking assumes that if Republicans win the majority in 2014, that 2016 will be so daunting that no experienced member would want to protect such a thin majority in a difficult year. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, for example, is in a tight race against Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, but he has said already that he would like to chair the committee.