GOP Takes a Page Out of Democrats’ Senate Playbook

Republicans are trying to expand the playing field, but will they have the money?

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AP / Charles Dharapak

Ed Gillespie, seen here on the Romney campaign in 2012, recently announced he'll run for Senate in Virginia, a recruiting coup for Republicans.

Pundits have been predicting for the last two election cycles that Republicans would take control of the Senate. After all, Democrats had to defend 19 seats in 2010 and 23 seats in 2012. And yet each time Republicans fell short, weakened by bloody tea party primaries and anemic candidate recruitment. This year, Republicans are hoping to finally capture the upper chamber: Democrats are defending 21 seats, seven in states that President Barack Obama lost in 2012. And to ensure a win, the GOP is taking a page from its erstwhile rivals.

In 2006 and again in 2008, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, under the stewardship of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, expanded the Democratic playing field into red and purple states through savvy candidate recruitment. Democrats scored surprising wins in states like Missouri and Montana. Schumer’s freshman class of 2008 is now up for reelection, while Democrats in Alaska, North Carolina and Minnesota must defend their seats.

In recent months, Republicans have adopted Schumer’s playbook, expanding the playing field beyond a handful of swing states. The GOP has recruited solid candidates in Michigan and Virginia, and if Scott Brown jumps into the race, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen could face a tough challenge in New Hampshire. “Thanks to a strong field of candidates, a growing map that has expanded into purple and blue states, and a strong political environment, Republicans are well positioned to win the Senate majority in 2014,” says Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the Senate.

“It worked for Democrats pretty well in 2006,” says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks senate races for the Cook Political Report. “It’s far from bring a done deal, but Republicans are putting the piece on the board to take advantage of a favorable environment.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the GOP strategy is money. More races cost more money, money the party doesn’t currently have. Democrats outraised Republicans in 2006, $121.4 million to $88.8 million, and $162.7 million to $94.4 million in 2008. Thus far in the 2014 cycle, Democrats have raised $48.6 million to the GOP’s $32.6 million. In November alone, the last month available for fundraising figures, Democrats outraised Republicans $5.1 million to $3.2 million. “Republican contributors felt burned in 2012 and have been slow to open up their checkbooks,” says Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks congressional races.

That said, the election is nine months away, and ultimately there are other factors that will come into play, Rothenberg says. “It’s unlikely that Republicans  will fail to win back the Senate because of the lack of money,” he says. “The president’s standing in October and the fight to define the election are likely to be more important.”

And, unlike Democrats in 2006 and 2008, Republicans are also defending two vulnerable seats: Georgia and Kentucky. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s race in Kentucky is particularly expensive. McConnell has already spent more than $4 million fending off primary challengers and the general election promises to cost more than $10 million. Plus, the tea party challenges that hobbled GOP recruitment in the last two cycles remain a factor. Crowded fields and potential run-offs could hurt GOP chances in Alaska, North Carolina, Iowa and Georgia.

All of which means that 2014 isn’t the inverse of 2006—but it’s still shaping up to be Republicans’ last best chance to take back the Senate.