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Politicians Run From the Senate

Many strong potential candidates reject parties' overtures, citing private and political factors.

November 09, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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