Corrected 06/10/09: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified one of the Democratic candidates for senate in Kentucky. It is Attorney General Jack Conway.
Elections are not typically won or lost because of a mistake in the final days of the campaign. More often than not, a remark, a key vote or a perception of a candidate occurs or begins to take shape months before Election Day.
This holds true for election cycles. What determines how political parties will fare begins as soon as the previous election is done. One of the most important, most tangible early indicators is candidate recruitment. Want insight to how the parties as a whole are likely to do in a particular cycle? Look at which candidates decide to run for office and which stay on the sideline. Much in the way many animals can sense an upcoming natural disaster, the antennae of politicians are finely tuned to the political winds and against any unnecessary risk in one of the riskiest businesses of them all.
As we have seen over the past weeks, it has been Republicans, not Democrats, who have been successful in getting the best candidates in important races and largely avoiding divisive, resource hemorrhaging primaries. This turns on its head the image of a GOP weakened to the point of paralysis.
Nowhere is this more evident than North Carolina, where Attorney General Roy Cooper turned down repeated overtures and promises of support from President Barack Obama to get in the race against Sen. Richard Burr (full disclosure: I worked for Sen. Burr from 2004-2006).
Normally, when the top pick declines, the bench clears with lesser candidates jumping in the race. It has been exactly the opposite in North Carolina. Despite Cooper's absence from the campaign, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker, State Rep. Greer Martin and even Elizabeth Edwards have all opted out. Sophomore Rep. Heath Shuler, who has been heavily courted by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has said opted out earlier this week—the second time Shuler has turned down their overtures. Tar Heel Democrats know what Beltway Democrats don't; Burr's work ethic and ability to work with all sides—which led Erskine Bowles, Burr's 2004 opponent to call him "a champion for North Carolina"—makes Burr formidable.
Of course, one state is not a narrative-maker. But when looking at the larger map, it's clear Sen. John Cornyn's team at the National Republican Senatorial Committee has much to talk about; a cleared primary in Ohio for former Congressman, OMB Director and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, while Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner battle Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher for the Democratic nomination, and the plumb recruitment of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and former Rep. Rob Simmons in Connecticut.
It's not just the Senate races, however. The National Republican Congressional Committee has announced sought-after candidates early and often. These include Martha Roby (Alabama's 2nd District), Van Tran (California 47th), Charles Djou (Hawaii 1st), Vaughn Ward (Idaho 1st), not to mention rematches in two races that would allow Republicans to recapture seats lost in 2008; Andy Harris vs. Freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil (Maryland 1st) and former Rep. Steve Chabot facing the man who defeated him, Rep. Steve Driehaus (Ohio 1st).
Nearly every day, either the NRSC or NRCC touts another Republican recruiting success or taunts another Democrat recruiting failure. Their Democratic counterparts, on the other hand, have had very little to say on the topic.
And with good reason—with the exception Tim Griffin declining to run in Arkansas and Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning's antagonizing of his party leadership, it's difficult to think of a prominent race where Democrats have outperformed Republican candidate recruitment. Yet Kentucky is hardly a perfect model for Democrats, as Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and state Attorney General Jack Conway are locked in divisive Democratic primary and many Republicans believe Bunning's truculence (and lack of fundraising) will eventually allow a more electable Republican to enter the campaign.
Corrected on : Doug Heye has served in the House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and Bush administration and is a veteran of political campaigns throughout the nation.