- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2015

Democrats have recruited big names to run in some of the most competitive Senate races next year, helping the party put early pieces into place as they make a major push to recapture the upper chamber.

Former Rep. Joe Sestak said he will make another bid for Senate in Pennsylvania, setting up a repeat of the 2010 race he lost to Republican Patrick J. Toomey. Democrats have recruited Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander to challenge Sen. Roy Blunt and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland to run against Sen. Rob Portman.

Each of those Republicans is a first-termer, elected in the 2010 midterm tea party wave. Democrats believe credible candidates can help oust them in a presidential election year, when their liberal base usually turns out at a higher rate.

“Rob Portman, Pat Toomey and Roy Blunt are some of the most vulnerable senators in the country and we’re excited about the great Democrats in all of those races,” Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an email.

Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged that the electoral map is different from last year, when Republicans netted nine seats, but said incumbency carries an ability to lay early fundraising markers and amass an infrastructure not afforded to challengers.

Mr. Blunt reported $2.2 million on hand at the end of last year, while Mr. Toomey and Mr. Portman reported close to $6 million.

“Obviously, it’s a totally different cycle,” Ms. Bozek said. “We’re taking nothing for granted.”

This early in the election cycle, the party committees are usually focused on trying to persuade their incumbents to run again and to recruit high-profile challengers in swing states.

Two of the most senior Senate Democrats have announced their retirements, but the party’s recruitment in swing states has been fortunate.

Nathan Gonzales, editor of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, cautioned against evaluating recruitment efforts too early.

Mr. Gonzales pointed to the insurgent candidacy of Republican Joni Ernst in Iowa last year after Rep. Tom Latham, a favorite of Gov. Terry E. Branstad and other Republicans, took a pass on running to replace Democrat Tom Harkin in the Senate.

“Time will tell how strong these recruits are,” he said. “I think Democrats are putting a lot of [stock] in a presidential cycle and presidential turnout helping their cause down the ballot.”

Ms. Bozek, the Republican spokeswoman, said the three top candidates Democrats have recruited amount to “rookies and retreads.”

Mr. Kander, 33, is still in his first term as secretary of state, and Mr. Strickland will be 75 on Election Day 2016. Mr. Sestak’s 2010 primary challenge and subsequent loss to Mr. Toomey has left a bad taste in the mouths of many Democrats.

Cincinnati City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld, a Democrat, has indicated he plans to stay in the Ohio race despite Mr. Strickland’s entrance.

Republicans acknowledge a difficult map, where they will be defending first-term Republican senators in Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Illinois and Florida, where Sen. Marco Rubio has indicated he will either run for president or for re-election, but not both.

The GOP also has designs on knocking off Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Democrats who survived close 2010 races against flawed candidates.

So far, no Republican senators have announced retirements. Democrats are losing Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has emerged as a high-profile contender to replace Mrs. Boxer, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is the first big-name candidate to announce his intentions to run for Ms. Mikulski’s seat after she announced her retirement Monday.

Two liberal groups, Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, also launched an effort to draft Rep. Donna Edwards into the Democratic race to replace Ms. Mikulski.

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