Tester, Wicker Begin 2016 Cycle With Distinct Challenges

New party committee chairs will grapple with recruiting, fundraising and—for differing reasons—a tricky map.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker are only a few days into leading their parties' respective Senate campaign committees, but they've already got their work cut out for them.

Unlike this past fall, where Democrats had to defend vast territory in red states, Republicans will be the ones with more territory to defend in 2016. They'll have 24 seats to retain, many in blue and purple states, compared with just 10 for Democrats. Democrats see it as a chance to reclaim the Senate majority they lost last week, while Republicans hope their bigger-than-expected midterm victories will help pad the margins to keep them over 50.

Wicker's biggest challenges, Republicans say, will be threefold: First, raising money in a year where much of the oxygen will get sucked up by a crowded Republican presidential primary; second, working to protect incumbents from primaries; and third, recruiting well for the GOP's sparse pickup opportunities.

GOP operatives say Wicker, who is well liked on K Street, is a hard worker who will be up for the challenge of matching Senate Democrats' campaign funds in a year where donors' focus tends to be on the presidential race. Especially given the wide field of presidential prospects, who will battle it out in a (likely) contentious and expensive primary, getting donors excited about the Senate will be a tougher sell.

Wicker defeated Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada for the campaign position Thursday.

Heller's pitch had been that he knows how to win in blue and purple states, a challenge Republicans will certainly have in 2016. Wicker, who is from Mississippi, doesn't have a lot of personal experience in swing states—but he did play a role in the race to save GOP Sen. Thad Cochran earlier this year. With so many incumbents on the ballot in 2016, many of them could have to fight off primary challenges, and party members say Wicker's experience in the Cochran race will translate well to the 2016 map.

"The other lesson from the last two cycles is, those who prepared early and laid the groundwork early do not have a primary problem," said Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist and former NRSC staffer.

Wicker's only downside, one Republican added, is that he doesn't have an outsize personality—not a necessity for the post, but something that could be helpful.

"If there's any weakness, [it's that] he's a quiet unassuming guy," said one Republican who's worked in Senate campaigns. "We'll see if that's a weakness or not ... he keeps his head down, works hard "¦ he certainly has his own style."

Despite the generally favorable map for Democrats, strategists acknowledge that defeating incumbents—which they'll need to do to win back the majority—is never as easy as it sounds. And although the DSCC had a strong fundraising lead over Republicans in 2014, it'll be tougher to raise similar cash in the minority and with a presidential race on top of the ticket.

"Challenge No. 1 is the map," said one Democrat familiar with the world of Senate campaigns. "And I know it looks beneficial to us, but it's still hard to defeat incumbents."

That means recruiting top-notch candidates to take on vulnerable blue- and purple-state GOP incumbents such as Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania—a task many operatives say has gotten harder as prospective candidates shy away from facing opposition-research groups on the campaign trail and coming to work in a dysfunctional Washington.

Tester acknowledged the difficulties at a press conference with reporters Thursday. "Now what my role is going to be at the DSCC is going out and finding candidates that can lead, that can win, that can advocate for the middle class in their election," he said. "And I look forward to that challenge. It's going to be a big challenge."

Tester's profile as a Democratic everyman will be helpful in the recruitment process, Democrats say, and his 2006 and 2012 victories in Montana give him a reputation as a pol who can win tough races. (In 2006, he ousted Republican Sen. Conrad Burns; in 2012, he won an unexpected victory over GOP candidate Denny Rehberg.)

"There's nobody who is sort of an average, everyday American than Jon Tester," the Democrat said. "So if the Democratic Party's roots are middle-class families, white middle class voters "¦ Jon can speak to all of them."

Sarah Mimms contributed to this article