Politicians Run From the Senate

Times Staff Writer

The world's most exclusive club is facing a surprising problem: A lot of people don't want to become members.

With elections for the U.S. Senate only a year away, leaders of both political parties have gotten the cold shoulder from many people they begged to run.

It has been 10 months since Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) announced he would retire in 2004; Democrats still have no serious candidate to replace him. Republican hopes of toppling Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who won by only 428 votes in 1998, suffered a blow when a popular GOP House member said no. Incumbents anticipating tough reelection fights in Arkansas and Missouri are breathing more easily now that some formidable potential opponents have declined to run.

Even the White House, which recruited some of the GOP's strongest Senate candidates for 2002, has come away empty-handed in several states where President Bush tried to persuade popular politicians to run.

Every campaign cycle brings its disappointments for party leaders who recruit candidates. But this year, the consequence of such failure is especially significant because control of the Senate is balanced on a knife's edge: Republicans hold 51 seats in the 100-member chamber.

"The two parties know that partisan control hangs on who they get to run," said Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "They are just not being very successful getting people."

Each case involves a host of personal and political factors shaping individual career decisions. Family considerations, gubernatorial ambitions, attachment to a lucrative job in the private sector -- all loom large in decisions to forgo a Senate race.

But this year, some analysts and strategists say, other factors have made it less appealing to run for the office that once was considered the crown jewel of many political careers.

Because of the volatile political and economic environment, running for the Senate can be a risky proposition. No one knows how the war in Iraq or the U.S. economy will look a year from now -- and to whose political advantage either will work.

In addition, the cost of a Senate campaign has skyrocketed: In the 2002 elections, six Senate candidates each spent more than $10 million on their campaigns, according to the Federal Election Commission -- and expenses will only increase. However, because of new campaign finance rules, national party committees cannot offer candidates as much assistance as they once did.

"The political environment has handed both parties a tough year for recruiting," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst of Senate elections for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, a Washington-based newsletter. "Between the war, the economy and campaign finance reform, prospective candidates have very little incentive to get into the game."

What's more, the prospect of serving in the Senate may seem less attractive because the GOP's one-seat margin makes it hard to pass major legislation.

"For people who like to get things done, the Senate might not be so attractive," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The 2004 Senate elections are being conducted on terrain that, at first blush, seems tilted to the Republicans' advantage.

Democrats have to defend 19 of the 34 seats being contested. One is in California, where Barbara Boxer is running for a third term, but Republicans have not yet fielded a candidate strong enough to seriously challenge her reelection prospects in a heavily Democratic state. Elsewhere, Democrats will be defending several seats in less hospitable territory -- the South, where Republicans have been gaining in strength.

But the GOP's expected edge in 2004 has been dulled by the decisions of several top-tier potential candidates not to run, despite entreaties from the White House and party leaders.

* In Nevada, popular GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons decided against challenging Reid, saying he believed he could accomplish more by staying in the House.

* In Arkansas, two Republicans -- Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Rep. Asa Hutchison -- declined to run against Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln, probably turning what could have been a tough reelection fight into relatively smooth sailing for the Democratic incumbent.

* Bush's Housing and Urban Development secretary, Mel Martinez, said he would not run for the Senate in Florida, where Democrat Bob Graham is retiring, preferring to keep his options open for an eventual gubernatorial race.

* In North Dakota, where support for Bush is strong, GOP hopes of beating Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan were hurt when former Gov. Ed Schaefer refused to run.

* In Illinois, former Gov. Jim Edgar turned away entreaties from Republican leaders to run for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

Republicans have found candidates for these races, but none as formidable as the ones who got away. Bush's 2004 recruiting record pales in contrast to 2002, when in some states the White House helped clear the GOP field for its favored candidate -- such as Norm Coleman of Minnesota and James Talent of Missouri, both of whom won their Senate races.

"When it comes to candidate recruitment for the Republicans, 2004 is not 2002," said Michael Siegel, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the Republicans who have decided not to run did so for a variety of reasons that do not reflect on the party's prospects.

"Every state is different," Allen said. "A lot has to do with lifestyle, where candidates are in terms of their life: Are they making money? Are they comfortable with the elected positions they have?"

One sign that the Senate may be losing some of its luster was the decision by two promising candidates -- Gibbons in Nevada and Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) -- to hold onto their House seats rather than try for what used to be seen as a step up.

Dunn was personally encouraged to run by Bush, who has jokingly addressed her as "Sen. Dunn." But she said she did not want to give up her considerable seniority in the House for an uncertain Senate campaign against Democratic incumbent Patty Murray.

Democrats have had their own share of difficulties and disappointments, both in recruiting candidates and in getting incumbents to stay. Four Senate Democrats have already announced their retirements in 2004, double the number of Republicans who are leaving.

Democratic recruiters set their sights on Missouri's lieutenant governor, Joe Maxwell, to run against a Republican they consider vulnerable, Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond -- but Maxwell said he would rather aim for the governor's mansion.

Their biggest headache has been in Georgia, where only one Democrat -- a relatively unknown state senator with little money and no support from party leaders -- has been willing to vie for Miller's seat.

That race has been shunned, in part, because analysts say it will be an uphill fight for any Democrat to win in a state that has grown increasingly Republican. Although it is no slam-dunk for the GOP, several potentially formidable Democrats are staying out.

Andrew Young, former U.N. ambassador and former Atlanta mayor, took a pass, making clear that his life above the fray was more appealing than the hurly-burly of the Senate.

"The question became, 'Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?' " Young told supporters in announcing his decision. "I began to see the Senate as very confining."

Michelle Nunn, the 36-year-old daughter of Sam Nunn, a Democrat who represented Georgia in the Senate for almost 25 years, disappointed party leaders when she bowed out of consideration, citing personal concerns.

With a young child, she concluded that there was no way she could go through the rigors of a campaign, serve in the Senate and have a real family life.

"It's a daunting prospect," said Nunn, who heads CityCares, a national volunteer organization based in Atlanta. "My primary focus is best directed toward my 11-month-old son and family."

Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor also refused to run; each is believed to be more interested in eventually running for governor.

"Washington is just not an attractive place to work anymore," Taylor has said. "Democrats like to get things done in government. We like to see the results of our work."

A senior Democratic strategist said that the party's early recruiting efforts around the country were hindered by the demoralization of the party after losing control of the Senate in 2002 and the lull in political activity during the war in Iraq.

This Democratic strategist said that "both parties are failing at some level" to persuade potential candidates that serving in the Senate is worth the trouble it takes to get there.

"People just don't want to do it," the strategist said. "Raising money is difficult. And if you get elected, what can you do in the Senate?"

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Senate election outlook

A look at the numbers

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Current Senate:

Republicans: 51

Democrats: 48

Independent: 1

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Up for reelection:

Republicans: 15

Democrats: 19

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Solidly Democratic

Arkansas: Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D)

Connecticut: Christopher J. Dodd (D)

Hawaii: Daniel K. Inouye (D)

Indiana: Evan Bayh (D)

Louisiana: John B. Breaux (D)

Maryland: Barbara A. Mikulski (D)

New York: Charles E. Schumer (D)

North Dakota: Byron L. Dorgan (D)

Oregon: Ron Wyden (D)

Vermont: Patrick J. Leahy (D)

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Likely Democratic

California: Barbara Boxer (D)

Nevada: Harry Reid (D)

South Dakota: Tom Daschle (D)

Washington: Patty Murray (D)

Wisconsin: Russell D. Feingold (D)

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Tossups

Alaska: Lisa Murkowski (R) seeking reelection

Florida: Open seat -- Democrat Bob Graham retiring

Illinois: Open seat -- Republican Peter Fitzgerald retiring

North Carolina: Open seat -- Democrat John Edwards retiring

Oklahoma: Open seat -- Republican Don Nickles retiring

South Carolina: Open seat -- Democrat Ernest F. Hollings retiring

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Leaning Republican

Georgia: Open seat -- Democrat Zell Miller retiring

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Likely Republican

Colorado: Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R)

Kentucky: Jim Bunning (R)

Missouri: Christopher S. Bond (R)

Pennsylvania: Arlen Specter (R)

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Solidly Republican

Alabama: Richard C. Shelby (R)

Arizona: John McCain (R)

Idaho: Michael D. Crapo (R)

Iowa: Charles E. Grassley (R)

Kansas: Sam Brownback (R)

New Hampshire: Judd Gregg (R)

Ohio: George Voinovich (R)

Utah: Robert F. Bennett (R)

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Source: Cook Political Report - Researched by Times graphics reporter Tom Reinken

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