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To win Senate, Democrats turn to candidates who have lost before

WASHINGTON — Democrats are turning to some proven election losers as they aim to retake control of the Senate in 2016.

In Ohio, Ted Strickland, who lost his bid for a second term as governor to former Rep. John Kasich in 2010, is running against Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

In Pennsylvania, former Rep. Joe Sestak wants another shot at Pat Toomey, the onetime Republican congressman who defeated him five years ago.

In Wisconsin, former Sen. Russ Feingold is considered the likeliest Democratic candidate to take on GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, in what would be another 2010 rematch.

Democrats do not have a candidate yet in North Carolina, Alaska or Georgia. But mentioned most often are the party’s losing Senate nominees from 2014: Michelle Nunn in Georgia and former Sens. Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mark Begich in Alaska.

Democrat campaign officials note that in Illinois, California, Missouri, Florida and elsewhere, they are putting up fresh candidates, and they say that Strickland, in particular, is a formidable politician who lost narrowly in a difficult year for Democrats.

“Losing in 2010 or 2014, for that matter, I don’t think that makes you a bad candidate — Democrats lost everywhere in those years and a guy like Ted Strickland actually ran a much more competitive race than Democrats did all over the country,” said Justin Barasky, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Those were nonpresidential election years, when Democratic President Barack Obama was not on the ballot.

Still, even some Democrats acknowledge that turning to candidates who last ran and lost reflects a spotty bench for a party struggling to win statewide races in contested states. It also shows the difficulty, for either party, of recruiting a candidate willing to take on a solid incumbent such as Portman or Toomey.

It’s evidence, too, off the challenge for Democrats struggling to reclaim the Senate, even in a presidential election year where a younger, more diverse electorate will help their party.

“We’ve had some challenges so far in recruiting candidates for 2016,” acknowledged Jim Manley, a Democratic consultant and former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “But after all it’s always difficult to put up a challenger against an incumbent.” Still, Manley said, “The math is on our side.”

Democrats will be defending 10 seats in November 2016, compared with 24 for the Republicans. Seven of the GOP seats are in states Obama won in 2012.

It’s a reversal from last November, when Democrats were playing defense and trying to hang on in seven states Obama had lost. Democrats ended up losing nine seats and their Senate majority. To retake it they must net four or five seats, depending which party wins the White House and can send the vice president to cast tie-breaking votes.

To succeed, Democrats will need stellar campaigns in the states that represent their best pickup opportunities.

At No. 1 is Democrat-friendly Illinois, where Republican Sen. Mark Kirk looks vulnerable and Democrats have a good candidate in Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

Democrats say they are putting up strong contenders in Ohio with Strickland and Wisconsin, if Feingold runs. In Pennsylvania, they insist Sestak can win. Yet Sestak has crossed party leaders in the past, including by defeating their chosen candidate in the 2010 Senate primary. Many Democrats have made no secret they would prefer a different nominee.

So far, no one has emerged.

For now, it’s the same story elsewhere, including North Carolina — a state Obama won once and lost once — where Democrats are searching for someone to run against two-term GOP Sen. Richard Burr.

Some hope to recruit Hagan, who lost her Senate seat last fall to Republican Thom Tillis. Others are cool to the idea of relying on someone who failed to defend her seat.

Even in Ohio, despite Democratic leaders closing ranks around Strickland, 73, he faces a primary challenge from a Cincinnati councilman, 30-year-old P.G. Sittenfeld. His supporters say the party should be cultivating a new generation of leaders.

The GOP faces recruiting challenges of its own as leaders search for candidates to run in several states, including the two that represent their best pickup opportunities: Colorado and Nevada, where Reid’s retirement creates a competitive open seat.

Still Republicans are all but licking their chops at some of Democrats’ choices.

“National Democrats are clearly placing a priority on recruiting candidates with strong name ID and established fundraising networks. The problem is they also have long legislative records that voters soundly rejected,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant who’s worked on Senate races. “So it’s going to be difficult for Democrats to make the case that they represent a new path.”

Associated Press writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.

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