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National | Even with a closely divided House and Senate, both national parties have had trouble recruiting political candidates

Issue: "View from the Axis," March 9, 2002

Imagine you've got the job of recruiting top-shelf candidates for U.S. House and Senate races. How do you convince proud, successful people to give up their family life, forgo lucrative job offers, move halfway across the country, and lay their reputations on the line before the voters?

The answer, more often than not, is: You don't.

As recruiting season winds down for the crucial 2002 elections, both parties find themselves without the marquee names they'd hoped to snag for top races. That means many incumbents, including some who looked vulnerable on paper, will face no serious challenge come November-a surprising outcome in a year when just a handful of seats could shift the balance of power in Washington.

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"It's certainly curious," says Mike Franc, vice president of government affairs at the Heritage Foundation. "What it's pointing to is the change in the political environment since last September. I don't get the sense there's a lot of political turmoil out there, which would be necessary for a lot of incumbents to go down."

Experts say there are many reasons for the lack of high-profile challengers. In the House of Representatives, redistricting is the No. 1 culprit. Faced with the controversial task of redrawing electoral boundaries after the 2000 census, state legislatures tend to protect incumbents. A sitting Democrat, for instance, will often see a couple of conservative ZIP codes lopped off his district and added to a neighboring district that leans Republican. As liberal districts become more liberal and conservative districts become more conservative, the opposing party finds it harder to mount an effective challenge.

And for both parties, Sept. 11 has proved to be a wildcard. Immediately after the disaster, several high-profile candidates took themselves out of the running, citing family concerns and the need for national unity. Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, insists, "Overall we're seeing a lot more people looking at avenues for public service after 9/11," but with the clock ticking down, he admits there are still "plenty" of races without a single viable candidate on the Republican side.

When will it be too late? "One day after the filing deadline," Mr. Forti deadpans. "Until then, you're perfectly viable."

Viable, maybe, but hardly perfect. Congressional campaigns eat money and breathe organization, and developing both of those resources takes time. As the calendar draws closer to Election Day, potential candidates will find the best donors already tapped out and the most enthusiastic volunteers already committed to another campaign.

That's why both parties start talking to their biggest stars years, rather than months, in advance. Forget about this November: Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, recently visited the West Coast to feel out top challengers for the 2004 elections.

No one is saying whom he talked to-or what he might have offered to sweeten the deal. Indeed, even the word recruitment can be deceiving. Not since the days of smoke-filled backrooms have the national party bosses been able to hand-pick their preferred candidates. Instead, they have to rely on a combination of ego-stroking and number-crunching to woo reluctant warriors. Personal phone calls and private meetings take care of the ego side, but it's the numbers that are truly important. Party organizations sometimes commission special polls to prove to prospects that a race is winnable. They may also offer campaign expertise, direct contributions, and big-name speakers to headline fundraising events.

But even the full-court press by national party leadership often failed to work this year. In Illinois, Republicans had their hearts set on Jack Ryan, a former investment banker who walked away from his million-dollar job to teach history and literature at an inner-city parochial school. He was young, telegenic, articulate, and rich enough to finance his own race against Sen. Dick Durbin. Sen. Frist met with Mr. Ryan personally to assure him that he could unseat an incumbent, as Mr. Frist himself had done eight years earlier in a race against Jim Sasser. Still, Mr. Ryan was unmoved. He elected to stay in school and skip the electoral draft.

Without a consensus candidate in the race, the Republican field splintered. House Speaker Dennis Hastert recruited Jim Oberweis, a wealthy dairy owner from the Chicago suburbs. He even broke with tradition to endorse his protégé in the primary. But much of the state establishment has rallied behind state Rep. Jim Durkin, while businessman John Cox is running as the favorite of conservatives and pro-lifers.

Democrats might be laughing all the way to the ballot box, except that they've had even greater recruitment woes this year. Just a few months ago, they planned to shore up their one-seat majority with an easy defeat of Oregon's first-term GOP senator, Gordon Smith. Their champion was Gov. John Kitzhaber, a beloved political figure barred by law from seeking another term in the state house. Polls commissioned by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee showed him with a 12-point lead over Mr. Smith, and Tom Daschle met with the governor personally to close the deal (perhaps by offering seats on key committees).


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