WASHINGTON – Rep. George Nethercutt (search)'s decision to challenge Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in Washington state next year plugs a hole in the Republican lineup for 2004. Now the party is looking to veteran politicians in South Dakota and Nevada to follow his example in Senate races.
GOP leaders are hoping that Rep. Jim Gibbons (search) will take on the Democratic whip, Sen. Harry Reid, in Nevada. Their choice to challenge Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota is former Rep. John Thune.
Gibbons has said he will make his decision by the end of August. An aide, Amy Spanbauer, said Wednesday that the lawmaker "wants to take the time to fully examine the options." Among them are running for governor, the Senate or the House.
Thune lost a close, costly race for South Dakota's other Senate seat last year, and remains the GOP's No. 1 choice to run again. "He doesn't have a formal timeline of when he'll make a final decision," said a spokesman, Ryan Nelson.
Nethercutt wasn't the first choice of GOP leaders to tackle Murray. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., announced earlier this year she wouldn't enter the race.
Nethercutt was the anti-politician when he won his first election, toppling then-Speaker Tom Foley in 1994 and entering Congress as a member of the new Republican majority. He pledged to limit himself to three terms at the time, then changed his mind as the self-imposed deadline approached.
Republicans say private polling shows Murray is vulnerable, but she holds a large fund-raising advantage, her political base is in the state's heavily populated west and turnout should be higher in a presidential election year. Unlike Dunn, Nethercutt represents a congressional district in the eastern portion of the state.
Republicans control the Senate, 51-48, with one Democratic-leaning independent. In all, there are 34 seats on the ballot in 2004, 19 held by Democrats, 15 by Republicans.
Democrats had an unambiguous recruitment success of their own recently, when former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (search) announced he would run against Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Republicans have had a lock on the state's two Senate seats for more than two decades, but some GOP strategists concede privately the race could become tight.
Democrats were also cheered when former GOP Gov. Ed Schafer of North Dakota announced he would not challenge Sen. Byron Dorgan. And they trumpeted a decision by Rep. Joseph Hoeffel to challenge veteran Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania -- even though the third-term lawmaker wasn't their first choice.
There have been recruiting stumbles by both parties in other states.
Republicans tried but failed to entice former Gov. Jim Edgar into the race in Illinois, where one-term GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald is retiring and a multi-candidate primary looms for both parties. HUD Secretary Mel Martinez decided not to run in Florida.
Democrats sought to interest two statewide officials in Missouri in challenging Sen. Christopher Bond, but they both declined. State Treasurer Nancy Farmer announced recently that she would enter the race.
Rep. John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican who often is targeted for defeat by Democrats, stands out this year for his slow start in fund raising. According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission (search), the conservative, five-term lawmaker has raised only $1,800 this year and has slightly more than $5,000 in his campaign account.
In an era in which lackluster fund raising is often viewed as a sign of weakness, Republican strategists have privately urged Hostettler to become more aggressive in raising money, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Carl Forti, a spokesman for the Republican campaign committee, declined to comment.
Hostettler's spokesman said the congressman intends to run again, and he has his strengths. He has defeated well-funded rivals in the past, although always by relatively narrow margins, and President Bush's name on the ballot next year should help. The president carried Hostettler's southwestern Indiana district with nearly 57 percent of the vote in 2000.
Democrats already have a challenger raising money and organizing a campaign.
Jon Jennings has a background in basketball, practically a religion in Indiana, as well as government. His experience in the former includes jobs with Indiana University, the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics; in the latter, work in the Clinton White House. His Web site identifies him as a foe of gun control, and a spokeswoman said he opposes abortion rights.
He reported raising more than $100,000 and had more than $63,000 in the bank as of June 30.
Melissa Lear, a spokeswoman for Jennings, said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already started to help and will send fund-raising advisers to Indiana next week.
"We think that Jon Jennings is a strong candidate ... and we have a real shot at it," said DCCC spokeswoman Kori Bernards.