Gov. Andrew Cuomo got the good news just after New Year’s Day: Two of his most formidable potential Republican challengers for reelection this year were taking a pass. Days later, it was Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s turn, when the Republican front-runner to take him on dropped out of the race.
Cuomo and Brown are not alone among Democrats who might challenge President Donald Trump in 2020: At least eight of them, all high-profile politicians, appear poised to avoid facing Republicans’ top-choice challenger this year.
And in many cases, that’s allowing the potential White House hopefuls to envision a 2018 spent honing their image as leaders of the anti-Trump resistance as they stockpile campaign cash — rather than having to focus on a serious GOP attempt to beat them, or just sully their image.
“No one wants to be a sacrificial lamb, but [Republicans] don’t even appear to be trying in some of these states,” Shripal Shah, a Democratic Senate campaign veteran who is now a vice president at the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, said of the lack of viable GOP candidates. “It’s not a missed opportunity. It’s malpractice.”
The GOP recruitment shortfall isn’t limited to races in liberal states where ambitious Democrats are considering national runs. Republican leaders have failed to secure their top-choice candidate in eight of the 10 Senate races in states that Trump won in 2016, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott has yet to commit to his expected run for Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat.
Most or all of the potential presidential hopefuls probably would have won regardless. But it’s customary for a president’s party to try and tarnish the image and deplete the war chests of potential threats to their leader’s reelection.
“In some cases, it’s not avoidable: Some of these states seldom have been friendly places to Republicans, and certainly not in a cycle like this,” said Republican strategist Jonathan Felts, who was political director for President George W. Bush during his second term. He pointed to the Democratic tilt in states like New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Still, Felts added, “in every White House in the modern era — back to Clinton — the political shop is traditionally very active in helping to recruit [such challengers]. Having sat there and done that recruitment in a tough time: If the president has bad numbers, that’s a challenge.”
Brown’s race in Ohio has long been the only one in which Republicans felt they could unseat a potential Trump 2020 contender. (Brown hasn’t said he’s considering running for president.) So when Republican front-runner Josh Mandel, the state treasurer, dropped out on Jan. 5, citing his wife’s health, GOP leaders scrambled to find a replacement candidate. They settled before long on Rep. Jim Renacci, who switched over from the gubernatorial race after being wooed by Trump administration officials to join a primary in which banker Mike Gibbons is self-funding his own long-shot bid.
The list of potential Trump challengers facing underwhelming or nonexistent competition so far in 2018 includes Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — neither of whom was ever expected to have a top-flight opponent — as well as Tim Kaine of Virginia — who was.
Democrats close to both New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy had also worried that Trump-allied self-funding candidates would jump in against them, forcing them to spend serious campaign cash to defend their otherwise safe seats.
But while Republicans are making a serious run at Connecticut’s governor’s mansion, no high-profile local GOP figure has surfaced to take on Murphy, and he now enters the year sitting on $7 million in campaign funds. Gillibrand’s most likely opponent, meanwhile, appears to be Chele Chiavacci Farley, a little-known private equity executive and party fundraiser.
And while at least three Republicans have lined up to take on Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, none has caught fire even as she amasses a cash stockpile of more than $14 million. Even an anti-Warren super PAC funded by Trump-aligned billionaire Robert Mercer has not reported spending any money against her since dropping $150,000 on anti-Warren radio ads in June, according to federal filings.
Even as few of these races are likely to become competitive, national Republicans are monitoring the potential presidential hopefuls closely, regularly hitting them with negative news releases and occasional small ad buys. Plus, back home, each of the Democrats faces regular accusations from local Republicans that they’re looking ahead to 2020 while taking 2018 — and their own state — for granted.
While Democratic strategists warn that it’s likely to be harder than usual to run up large margins of victory given 2018’s political polarization, many of those same operatives say they’re happily surprised not to see more GOP attempts to muddy lawmakers who have made names for themselves standing against Trump.
“The saddest thing for the Republican Party is I think these are their top-level candidates. That’s it,” Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party in Virginia, said of the slate of Republican challengers.
In Virginia, Republicans have been desperate to find a top-tier opponent for Kaine. But the current field pits a state delegate against Corey Stewart — Trump’s former state chair who failed in his 2017 gubernatorial run as a defender of Confederate “heritage” — and E.W. Jackson.
Jackson is a far-right pastor who has failed in previous bids to become a senator and lieutenant governor after calling gay people “very sick people” and tying yoga to Satan.
Among the other Virginia candidates GOP leaders have tried unsuccessfully to recruit is former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who lost his 2008 Senate race by 31 points before running for president in 2016. He dropped out after receiving just 12 votes in Iowa and not qualifying for the debates.
“That’s the state of the Republican Party,” Swecker said. “No one wants to run on a ticket when you have Donald Trump as the head of your party.”