Mark Kelly

Former astronaut Mark Kelly, left, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington alonside his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, in October 2017. Kelly is running for U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate are recalibrating candidate recruitment for 2020, tacitly acknowledging that a strategy of relying heavily on running well-known, establishment figures in competitive contests has delivered unsatisfactory results.

Taking a page from the House Democrats’ 2018 playbook, Senate Democrats are looking for contenders who might have limited name recognition and political experience but who feature impressive resumes and compelling personal stories that appeal to voters suspicious of Washington.

In Arizona, Senate Democrats recruited Mark Kelly, a former astronaut who had never run for office. In Texas, they tapped M.J. Hegar, a female military veteran with just one previous race, for the House, under her belt.

Democrats have yet to field a complete slate of candidates through this fresh approach, raising early questions about their prospects for erasing the Republican Party's four-seat Senate majority. But party leaders are expressing confidence, arguing that candidate recruitment is on track.

“We still have plenty of time,” said Catherine Cortez Masto, the Nevada senator helming the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The people that we are talking to in all of these states that are interested in running — they are incredible people, they are well-qualified, they’ve got great backgrounds, and I think they will be formidable candidates if they decide to get into these races.”

In 2016, the last election in which Senate Democrats were on offense, establishment nominees did not deliver.

Democrats lost an open-seat race in Indiana with former senator Evan Bayh as their nominee; they came up short against Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., with former Sen. Russ Feingold; they were blown out by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, using former governor Ted Strickland; and they lost Florida with Patrick Murphy, then a sitting congressman.

That is why, this time around, Democrats say they were not heartbroken when Tom Vilsack, a former governor and ex-Cabinet secretary, announced he would not challenge Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.

Nor were they disappointed when Rep. Joaquin Castro declined to seek the party’s nomination against Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. They did not fret when Rep. Ruben Gallego opted against challenging Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz.

“There is a variety of experience that people can bring that is important," said a Democratic operative involved in the party’s effort to win the Senate. “Not having run for statewide office before might be better.”

Indeed, Democratic leaders are quite happy with Kelly, the ex-astronaut who is their likely standard bearer in Arizona.

The same goes for Hegar in Texas. Her profile exemplifies the sort of Democrat the DSCC is after. She is a charismatic Air Force veteran of the Afghanistan conflict who, unlike Castro, has no congressional voting record to defend.

She lost her bid to oust Rep. John Carter in the midterm elections but ran a spirited campaign.

Plus, as a woman, her candidacy could spur a major investment by EMILY’s List, a liberal organization that directs millions to pro-abortion, Democratic women who run for Congress. Indeed, a Democratic source tells the Washington Examiner that EMILY’s List preferred Hegar over Castro.

Ben Ray, a spokesman for the group, which is doing its own candidate recruiting, confirmed Hegar is highly thought of.

“We endorsed her in 2018 and believe she is a strong candidate,” he said.

Senate Democrats are not entirely opposed to established candidates. There are exceptions, if the exceptions look promising enough.

In North Carolina, they could turn to Janet Cowell, a former state treasurer, to take on Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. Meanwhile, Democrats worked overtime to lure Stacey Abrams into the race against Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., only to be spurned after a lengthy courtship. Abrams narrowly lost her campaign for governor last year.

That, and the failure so far to land top-flight candidates in some of their targeted races, has sparked criticism. Much of the blame has fallen on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The New Yorker, a former DSCC chairman instrumental in the party’s rise to power in the Senate in the 2000s, has been personally involved in recruiting.

Top Democrats concede the Abrams miss was a setback. She might be the only Democrat who could put Republican-leaning Georgia in play.

The search for strong challengers also continues in Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, and Colorado, although there, Democrats have a variety of quality candidates in the mix and are bullish on defeating Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

The Democrats’ difficulties in these targeted races during the first months of the election cycle have been reassuring to the GOP.

“Democrats are realizing that running against well-funded, battle-tested Republican incumbents during an economic boom is more daunting than they’re willing to publicly admit,” said Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Schumer’s band of second-tier candidates will have a difficult time.”

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