WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are claiming early success in recruiting strong candidates in Republican-held states as they fight to retake the majority after last year's midterm bloodletting. But in several states the party is still searching, with the Democrat who looks like the strongest candidate holding out for now.
In New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, seen as by far the most formidable opponent to Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte, is waiting until the end of the legislative session in June to make her decision. In Indiana and North Carolina, Democrats are eyeing ex-senators for possible reruns, but it's not clear either former legislator — Evan Bayh in Indiana and Kay Hagan in North Carolina — will step forward. Bayh is sitting on nearly $10 million he could use for his next campaign.
Even in Pennsylvania, where former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak is already running hard against incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in a top swing state, Democrats are still searching for an alternative because of concerns that Sestak will not be their strongest contender.
Republicans point to the turmoil in Pennsylvania and Democrats' failure to field a candidate so far in several other states won by President Barack Obama as signs that the early advantage in the campaign for the Senate goes to the GOP. "I think things are shaping up in a quite positive direction for a Republican majority," said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who chairs the Republicans' Senate campaign committee.
But Democrats note that Republicans have problems of their own, including failing, so far, to coalesce around a candidate in the two Democratic-held seats that are the likeliest GOP pickup opportunities: Nevada, where Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is retiring; and Colorado, where Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet is running for a second full term.
They boast of recruiting successes in states including Florida, Ohio and Illinois. "We're very enthusiastic, our recruiting is going great. That's an early sign, usually," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
In a reversal of 2014, Republicans are defending more than twice as many states this election cycle as Democrats — 24 to Democrats' 10. Democrats must net four or five seats to retake the majority, depending on which party controls the White House and can dispatch the vice president to break ties in the Senate. The presidential election campaign may help Democrats by mobilizing their voters, but how the race unfolds will impact Senate campaigns in other ways that cannot yet be predicted.
One thing both sides agree on: there's still lots of time and plenty can change between now and the first primaries early next year. Some of the senators elected last November had not yet entered the race at this point in the last election cycle, so the playing field is certainly to look very different six months or a year from now.
Even so, the outlines of the Senate battleground are taking shape:
— Although 34 seats are up next year, only a handful will host competitive races. The top-tier contests are shaping up in Florida, Nevada, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado and potentially New Hampshire. Florida and Nevada are both open seats after Reid's retirement announcement in Nevada and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's decision to run for president.
— A few rough and tumble primaries look to be shaping up for both parties. The Florida seat in particular offers the potential for a chaotic contest. On the Democratic side, establishment choice Rep. Patrick Murphy may face a challenge from liberal firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson. On the Republican side conservative Rep. Ron DeSantis has declared his candidacy and will likely face Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who's drawing more establishment support, with other potential GOP candidates circling.
— Unlike in recent election cycles, sitting GOP senators seem to be largely avoiding credible challenges from the right. So far only a little-known state senator has declared her interest in challenging Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who's a perennial irritant to conservatives because of his deal-making with Democrats on immigration and other issues.
— For the most part, no incumbent Republican senator is being completely written off the way some Democrats in deep-red states were last cycle (like Mark Pryor in Arkansas, who ended up losing by 18 percentage points to Republican Tom Cotton). But Republicans Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Mark Kirk in Illinois are both viewed as having a very tough climb.
Kirk faces Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, although it's possible Duckworth could have a primary challenge. Johnson, who faces a likely rematch from former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, said in an interview that the makeup of the Wisconsin electorate in a presidential election year presents a challenge for him. "It is going to be more difficult, it's going to be close," Johnson said.
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.