Losing in 2014 may not mean you're out of politics for good—or even for more than a cycle.
For Democrats, there were plenty of strong 2014 recruits who found themselves wiped out by the Republican wave last Tuesday night. But they may not be out of politics for long: A handful of Democratic candidates, both incumbents who were defeated and challengers who fell short, are already being talked about as future prospects and could be back on the ballot as early as 2016.
"This was a wave, and I think it was also the product of turnout more than these individual people being rejected," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "I think there's an opportunity for them to run again. ... Voters don't particularly hold it against you that you lost."
In North Carolina, Democrats are openly talking about the prospect of Democrat Kay Hagan, who lost narrowly last week, challenging Republican Sen. Richard Burr in 2016. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who narrowly lost to Republican Dan Sullivan, could run against GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski next cycle. And there are others who are seen as potential repeat candidates: Should Mary Landrieu lose her runoff election in Louisiana, she might run against GOP Sen. David Vitter in 2016 (or in an open-seat race if he's elected governor); Georgia's Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter could position themselves for the 2016 Senate race or 2018 governor's race.
The benefits of running a repeat candidate, especially if they're former incumbents, are obvious: These are people who know how to raise money, put together a campaign operation, and campaign statewide. Plus, these candidates would be facing a very different electorate than the one that gave Republicans big victories this fall—a presidential electorate, with the kind of national turnout operation that has helped elevate Democratic down-ballot candidates as well.
For candidates like Hagan and Begich, both of whom ended Election Day losing close races while running strong campaigns, the argument that their losses were due to the wave environment and not their own performance would be a persuasive one.
"It's totally doable. The truth is anyone can do it, particularly when your party takes a shellacking like we did," said Democratic consultant Jef Pollock. "Almost anyone's race can be explained away by the national mood."
And in many of these states, the across-the-board bad news for Democrats this year means there's far less of a bench than there could have been—meaning there aren't that many alternatives in many key states, if the former officeholders decide not to run.
North Carolina Democratic consultant Thomas Mills said that Democrats have few other high-profile options for the race against Burr next cycle. Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor who now serves in President Obama's Cabinet, has already said he's not planning to run. The state's attorney general, Roy Cooper, is planning to run for governor. Other prospects include state Treasurer Janet Cowell, Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, and former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, among others.
"There's nobody really on the horizon.... If [Hagan] decided to make the move, she would be filling a vacuum," Mills said. "There's not anybody who seems to be clamoring to get into the race, and there's not anybody that Democratic activists are begging to get in."
Tom Jensen, who runs the Democratic polling group Public Policy Polling, said an August PPP poll of the 2016 Senate race found that, of the Democrats' other Senate prospects polled, all had name ID lower than 30 percent.
"Democrats just don't have anyone particularly well-known right off the bat, which I think means if Kay wanted to run again ... [Democrats] certainly should let her run," he said.
That's true in Alaska as well, where Begich lost to Sullivan by about 8,000 votes. (The Associated Press called the race Wednesday morning.) Democrats don't have a strong bench of recruits in Alaska, and Begich's allies say a bid against Murkowski in 2016 would certainly be a consideration for the defeated senator. He could also mount a challenge to veteran GOP Rep. Don Young, who won just 52 percent of the vote this year.
"He is already plotting," said Jim Lottsfeldt, the Alaska-based Democratic operative who ran the pro-Begich super PAC Put Alaska First this cycle. "I've spoken with him and he hasn't made up his mind, but if he doesn't prevail he's certainly considering his options in 2016." (Begich's campaign declined to comment on the senator's future plans.)
In Georgia, both Senate nominee Michelle Nunn and gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter were seen as strong candidates who lost for reasons other than their own personal performance. When GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson is up for reelection in 2016 and the governor's mansion opens up in 2018, observers say it's likely either Nunn or Carter—or both—will be on the ballot again.
And the 2016 cycle could end up seeing a bevy of other Democrats who are also Senate losers. In Wisconsin, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson could face a rematch against former Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold. Johnson will be one of the Senate Democrats' top targets in two years. And in Pennsylvania, where GOP Sen. Pat Toomey narrowly defeated Democrat Joe Sestak in 2010, the Democrat is already preparing for another campaign.
That said, coming off a hard-fought and expensive 2014 race only to launch directly into another one is something plenty of pols wouldn't want to do. Mary Burke, the Democrat who lost to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker this fall, has already flat-out said she won't run for statewide office again. It's also a tough transition to go from being the incumbent in the race to being the challenger to another incumbent. But it's a challenge many losing candidates may be willing to accept.
"Especially coming out of a race, all the pieces are there—it wouldn't take a lot of work to put the band back together again," said Morgan Jackson, a North Carolina-based Democratic consultant. "You see these races where candidates, whether they be challenger candidates or incumbents, come woefully short at the end—and often times there's a lot of enthusiasm the next time around."