Recruiting tightens race for control of Senate

Democrats out to blunt GOP edge in numbers

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Just six months ago, Senate Republicans seemed poised to march to victory in 2012 and easily retake control of the upper chamber of Congress, but some successful Democratic recruiting and some unintentional help from the tea party in recent months have made next year’s overall contest more competitive.

Numbers alone mean the Democrats still face very tough odds, since they are defending 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for election next year, and few seats held by Republicans are considered competitive races for now.

Republicans must pick up just three or four seats to retake the chamber, depending on who wins the presidency, and the economy and President Obama’s sagging poll numbers aren’t likely to do Democrats any favors on down-ballot races.

But in recent months, Democrats have bolstered their position by amassing early campaign cash and fielding a handful of candidates whose campaigns have caught fire and are positioned to run hard against Republicans.

Despite their stronger position heading into 2012, Republicans don’t want to leave anything to chance and are touting their own recruiting successes.

“This may be the first cycle where I can look at it and say both parties did really well in recruiting,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst who handicaps races in his biweekly Rothenberg Political Report. “Usually one party does really well, and the other can’t throw a baseball into the ocean.”

Republicans have top-tier challengers to take on Democratic incumbents in the red states of Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota, but they have yet to find strong candidates to run against incumbents such as Sen. Maria Cantwell in Washington state, Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota and Joe Manchin III in West Virginia.

A handful of Republicans are running against first-term Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania, but there are no real standouts, Mr. Rothenberg said. The same can be said of Missouri, where a number of GOP candidates are vying for a chance to take out a weakened freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Democrats, meanwhile, have lured top-tier candidates to run in Massachusetts, Nevada and Virginia, but have yet to find a strong challenger to Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine or for the seat held by Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who is retiring. Earlier this month, they also lost their best hope in Texas, where incumbent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is retiring, when retired Lt. Gen. Ric Sanchez dropped out of the race citing poor fundraising and “personal challenges.”

In Massachusetts, Democrats scored a major coup by convincing the headline-grabbing Elizabeth Warren to run. Ms. Warren — a Harvard professor who oversaw the 2008 U.S. banking bailout and conceived of and pushed for creation of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — has energized party activists concerned about Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown’s ability to cement his hold on the seat long held by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Democrats also are eyeing Nevada as a possible pickup, playing on the still-lingering resentment about Republican Sen. John Ensign’s sex scandal. Nevada’s Republican governor appointed former Rep. Dean Heller to replace Mr. Ensign in May, but his short-lived status as an incumbent doesn’t seem to be giving him an edge. He is running an uphill race against longtime Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who represents Las Vegas, the most populous part of the state.

And in Virginia, seen as an ideal chance for a Republican pickup since first-term Democratic Sen. Jim Webb decided to retire, Tim Kaine, the state’s former governor and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is proving a formidable opponent for George Allen, a former governor and senator.

Republican Senate strategists are brushing aside recent Democratic crowing about their recruiting success.

“I find it rather absurd that there’s victory laps being run — especially over recruiting a candidate in Massachusetts, one of the bluest of states,” said Brian Nick, a former strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I’m not blown away by the Democrats’ recruiting. Their backs are very much against the wall in terms of the entire landscape.”

Republicans are putting more states in play than even previously planned, Mr. Nick contends, citing rumblings that Marc Cenedella of Ladders.com, a job-hunting site, in recent days is being viewed as an increasingly serious challenger to Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York.

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