WASHINGTON -- Republican politicians in multiple states have decided recently not to run for the US Senate next year, stirring anxiety among Washington operatives about the effectiveness of the party's recruiting efforts and whether this signals a broader decline in GOP congressional prospects.
Prominent Republicans in recent days passed up races in North Dakota and West Virginia, both GOP-leaning states with potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Earlier, Republican recruiters on Capitol Hill and at the White House failed to lure their first choices to run in Florida, Michigan, and Vermont.
These setbacks have prompted grumbling. Some Republican operatives, including some who work closely with the White House, privately point to what they regard as a lackluster performance by Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the group that heads fund-raising and candidate recruitment for GOP senators.
But some strategists more sympathetic to Dole point the finger right back. With an unpopular war in Iraq, ethical controversies shadowing top Republicans in the House and Senate, and President George W. Bush getting the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, the waters look less inviting to politicians deciding whether to plunge into an election bid next year.
Additionally, some Capitol Hill operatives complain that preoccupied senior White House officials have been less engaged in candidate recruitment than they were in 2002 and 2004.
Historically, Senate and House races often are won or lost in odd-numbered years like this one, as a party's prospects hinge critically on whether the most capable politicians decide to invest time, money, and personal pride in a competitive race. Often, this takes some coaxing.
That is why Dole met twice with Representative Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, and a third time with Capito and her father, former governor Arch A. Moore Jr., in an effort to persuade her to take on Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat. Bush won 56 percent of the vote in West Virginia last year, creating the hope for many that Byrd, who will turn 88 next month, can be halted in his bid for a record ninth term. But last week Capito said she decided to stay put and seek election to a fourth House term.
Last month, White House political strategist Karl Rove flew to Bismarck to implore North Dakota's popular Republican governor, John Hoeven, to challenge Democratic Senator Kent Conrad. Rove could argue with some compelling numbers: Bush won 63 percent of the state's presidential votes last year, and Hoeven trounced his Democratic opponents in 2000 and 2004. But the governor said no thanks, and Republicans conceded they have no strong second choice.
Perhaps no state has frustrated the GOP elite more than Florida, where Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, is trying for a second term after winning his first with 51 percent of the vote.
After failing to convince Representative Katherine Harris to stay out of the race, GOP leaders began a public search for an alternate candidate. State House Speaker Allan Bense was courted by Florida Governor Jeb Bush before bowing out. Dole took a private plane to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade conservative commentator and former Florida representative Joe Scarborough to make the race.
Many Democrats and some Independents revile Harris for the role she played as Florida secretary of state in favoring Bush in the 2000 recount process. But she has enough hard-core conservative fans to scare away other Republican Senate hopefuls, and Democrats are watching the dispute gleefully.
No Republican who has opted out of a 2006 candidacy has publicly cited the level of support from national Republicans or the general political environment as a reason. A senior Republican familiar with the recruiting process said the climate has shifted for the GOP because of a confluence of problems from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina and high gasoline prices: ''Looking at polls from June or July and then looking at them now, the deterioration is really bad."
Another Republican, pollster Tony Fabrizio, said a recruiting chill was inevitable. Candidates ''aren't stupid," he said. ''They see the political landscape. You are asking them to make a huge personal sacrifice. It's a lot easier to make that sacrifice if you think there's a rainbow at the end."
Fabrizio accepts the general consensus among political prognosticators that Republicans are likely to keep their Senate and House majorities, in part because there are relatively few open seats, and Democrats must defend seats in many places that have been trending Republican. But he and others say the hope from earlier this year of fortifying these majorities is now considerably more remote.
The GOP holds 55 Senate seats, but unless its political climate brightens considerably in the next few months, some strategists and analysts believe the next Senate may resemble the one that followed the 2002 election, when Republicans held the narrowest of majorities.
In part, this is because Democrats have seemingly found their stride as Republicans are stumbling in the recruiting race. Since Sept. 1, Democrats have lured their preferred candidate, Missouri Auditor Claire McCaskill, to take on Republican freshman Senator James Talent.
They have done the same in Arizona, where former Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson, a wealthy developer, is poised to challenge two-term Senator Jon Kyl.
Republicans also will struggle to hold on to Pennsylvania, where recent polls show Democratic state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. with a substantial lead over two-term Senator Rick Santorum.
In Rhode Island, liberal Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee is being challenged by Mayor Stephen Laffey of Cranston in the party primary, prompting the NRSC to run television ads attacking Laffey. Democrats hope the survivor will be too bloodied to win the general election in a state Bush lost by 20 percentage points.
Dole can count some successes. She was hoping Mike McGavick, the former chairman of Safeco Corp., would take a fight to Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington state, and he is.
In Minnesota, she scored her first choice, Republican Representative Mark Kennedy, to run for retiring Democrat Mark Dayton's seat, and cleared the field for him.
But in Michigan, the White House and the NRSC failed to persuade Republican Representative Candice Miller to take on Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.
On the House side, where Republicans hold 231 of the 435 seats, Democrats and Republicans can point to successes in individual races, but no clear national pattern has emerged, analysts say.