Senate Democrats Recruiting Past Picks to Run Again In 2016

Senate Democrats are turning to tried-and-true veterans over fresh-faced alternatives in marquee races, and not everybody in the party is thrilled.

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland speaks before a campaign rally for President Barack Obama at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio Saturday, May 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan) (National Journal)

Ted Strickland has the resume of an elder statesman within the Democratic Party: He's 73, served in the House for a dozen years, and lost his last statewide race in 2010. But rather than step aside for the next generation, the former governor of Ohio said last week that he is "seriously considering" a run against Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

If he does, his candidacy will present an early dilemma for Democrats, one that's reflected in many of their other top Senate targets. Many Democrats who lost in previous elections are considering comebacks for office in marquee 2016 races and, despite their setbacks, seem positioned to gather most of the party's support behind them.

In North Carolina, Democrats still consider former Sen. Kay Hagan their top choice. Party leaders in Pennsylvania are starting to rally around Joe Sestak, the party's 2010 nominee for the Senate who hasn't held elective office since. And in Wisconsin, most Democrats expect former Sen. Russ Feingold will return to politics after more than four years away and claim the party's nomination.

A fourth, former Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, has not ruled out a campaign after losing his reelection race last year, and he would be the party's top choice to run against GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

It's a gamble for the party to rely so heavily on the brand-name political veterans. Former statewide officeholders like Strickland carry important advantages into major campaigns, including high name recognition and a proven ability to raise money. But in a cycle where Democrats can finally turn the page on the Obama era, when many voters are distrustful of anything that smacks of the political establishment, their candidacies are also inextricably linked to both the president and the past.

But most senior Democratic officials are embracing the past. They argue that, although former officeholders are sometimes a risky bet, most members of the current crop of potential recruits are well-qualified to run for office again. Against a well-funded and entrenched incumbent like Portman, they say Democrats can't afford to roll the dice with someone untested.

"There's no question there's always need for a fresh face, but these are people who are very savvy, and well-liked, and gold-chip prospects," said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about party strategy. "So I think there's a difference between someone who's been around the block and lost 20 times" and the candidates being recruited today.

In Ohio, the primary could pit two candidates with very different levels of experience—in the septuagenarian Strickland and 30-year-old Cincinnati City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld, who already declared his candidacy. If Strickland runs, he's well positioned to receive the vast majority of party support.

That preference for the familiar concerns several skeptics who believe the party is already suffering from an age imbalance among its leaders—a discrepancy that could be exacerbated if the party nominates the 67-year-old Hillary Clinton for president—and could use an infusion of younger talent.

"The Ohio Democrats fall into two categories," said Jerry Austin, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state. "Those who understand it's time for the future and find new people to run "¦ and those who don't know anything other than the past. That's why they fall back on candidates like Strickland."

Still, in at least four other states, Democrats are ready to test the proposition that former officeholders are their best bet to knock off GOP incumbents.

Like Strickland, political operatives will find a lot to like in each of their perspective candidacies. Hagan proved a dynamite fundraiser during her last campaign, for instance, while Begich came close to a stunning victory in a red state during a terrible year for the party. Sestak was a former Navy admiral, and Feingold's brand of outspoken independence makes it difficult to label him just another politician.

But the quartet of former officeholders also voted for many of the least popular parts of President Obama's agenda, such as Obamacare. Many of them—like Feingold—held statewide office for nearly two decades. With the exception of Begich, all of them are over 60 years old.

That kind of experience makes it difficult to argue they aren't part of the political establishment—a risky place for any pol to land at a time when dissatisfaction with politics is near modern highs. Candidates who come from outside the system have an easier time arguing that they fix it.

"It's being able to say, 'Listen, I've never been a part of that work,' " said Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist. " 'I'm like you, I don't understand why they do things like they do.' "

Democrats also aren't stuck with retreads in every race. Many Democrats think Rep. Patrick Murphy, just 31 and elected in 2012, will run for Sen. Marco Rubio's seat in Florida. A 33-year-old Democratic secretary of state named Jason Kander is contemplating a run against GOP Sen. Roy Blunt in Missouri.

Schale sees both sides of the argument: Last year, he was an unofficial adviser to Charlie Crist's failed run for governor and also worked for first-time candidate Gwen Graham, who scored one of the party's few victories against a House GOP incumbent. Despite Crist's failure and Graham's success, he says it would be a mistake to conclude that candidates with baggage are a bad idea. In the governor's race, for instance, an inexperienced nominee would have been swamped early by Republican Gov. Rick Scott's rampant spending.

"It's very hard to build a candidate from whole cloth," Schale said. "[Particularly] in states with an expensive media environment."