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Still thinking about running for the U.S. Senate? You're Too Late

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No non-incumbent has won a U.S. Senate seat by announcing their candidacy this late in the election cycle; the average length of successful U.S. Senate campaigns since 2000 has been 447 days

Many Wisconsin Republicans were disappointed last week when former four-term Governor Tommy Thompson announced he would not challenge Democrat Russ Feingold for his U.S. Senate seat this November.

Republicans were particularly disappointed, considering Thompson had led Feingold in several polls conducted early this year in hypothetical matchups between two of the Badger State's most well known political figures.

However, had Thompson run he would have attempted to do what no other non-incumbent has succeeded in doing this century: win a Senate seat after waiting until mid-April of the election year to launch a campaign.

A Smart Politics analysis of 166 general election contests conducted since 2000 finds that - with one unique exception - the latest a non-incumbent has announced their candidacy and gone on to win a U.S. Senate seat is April 3rd of the election year.

That distinction goes to Mark Dayton, former DFL Senator from Minnesota, who announced his candidacy on April 3, 2000, and holds the record over the past decade for the shortest period between such an announcement and Election Day - at 218 days.

The average length of a U.S. Senate campaign this decade for those who have successfully knocked off incumbents or won open seats has been 448 days (which would be August 11, 2009 in the current election cycle).

For open seat races, the average length of a successful campaign was 442 days while the average length of successful campaigns against incumbents was about two weeks longer at 454 days.

(Note: the 'unique exception' mentioned above deals with the 2002 New Jersey U.S. Senate race in which Democratic incumbent Robert Torricelli withdrew from the contest on September 30th after the disclosure of illegal contributions to his campaign. New Jersey Democrats then quickly picked former Senator Frank Lautenberg (who retired less than two years prior) to appear on the ballot in place of Torricelli - some 34 days before the election).

Mark Dayton is not the only candidate who announced and won a Senate seat in the year of the election.

After Dayton, other candidates who successfully flirted with the calendar are Democrat Ken Salazar of Colorado, who did not announce his candidacy until March 10th of 2004 (238 days out), Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee who waited until March 11th of 2002 (239 days out), and Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma who announced on March 1st of 2004 (247 days out).

In the 2008 election cycle, all of the 10 general election non-incumbent winners announced their candidacies in 2007 with the exception of Alaska Democrat Mark Begich, who waited until February 27th of 2008 (251 days out).

The reasons why successful campaigns need more than 200 days to gestate are obvious - it takes time to raise the millions of dollars needed to win a U.S. Senate race, to build a statewide network of supporters, campaign volunteers, and endorsements, and to build name recognition, especially when running against incumbents.

But, despite the calendar nearly turning over to May, there are still names being floated about as potential U.S. Senate challengers in 2010.

One high profile "non-candidate" still on the fence is former two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee Dino Rossi in the State of Washington.

Rossi's entry in the race against three-term Democratic incumbent Patty Murray would likely squeeze out many of the nearly dozen announced Republican hopefuls vying to win their party's primary this August.

However, with just 194 days to go before the general election, history would suggest Rossi has missed his opportunity to run and win.

Overall, of the 49 successful non-incumbents to win general election U.S. Senate seats since 2000, 13 launched their candidacies in the year of the election, 32 launched their candidacies in the year prior to the election, and four announced their candidacies two years prior to the election.

Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee is the 'early bird' winner - filing his paperwork in his bid to win outgoing Senator Bill Frist's seat some 755 days before the 2006 election, on October 13, 2004.

Missouri Democrat Mel Carnahan was next by announcing his candidacy 734 days out from the 2000 Election, on November 4, 1998 (in a contest he won after dying in a plane crash three weeks before Election Day).

Republican George Allen of Virginia had the third longest campaign at 703 days - announcing his 2000 U.S. Senate bid on December 5, 1998.

Of course, some politicians play it 'loose' as to whether they are actually a true candidate for office, or just 'exploring the possibility.'

For example, Democrat Hillary Clinton first filed papers with the FEC on July 7, 1999 prior to her 'listening tour,' but did not formally announce her bid for Senator from New York until February 6, 2000.

Similarly, Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota formed a campaign committee on June 14, 2001, but did not announce his candidacy until February 11, 2002.

But whether or not a formal announcement accompanies the filing of paperwork, the lesson for those candidates still considering runs yet in 2010 is that if neither have been completed at this stage in the game, the game is likely over.

Length of Campaigns for Successful Non-Incumbent General Election U.S. Senate Candidates, 2000-2008

Senator
State
Party
Announced
Days
Frank Lautenberg*
NJ
Democrat
Oct. 2, 2002
34
Mark Dayton
MN
Democrat
Apr. 3, 2000
218
Ken Salazar
CO
Democrat
Mar. 10, 2004
238
Lamar Alexander
TN
Republican
Mar. 11, 2002
239
Tom Coburn
OK
Republican
Mar. 1, 2004
247
Mark Begich
AK
Democrat
Feb. 27, 2008
251
Ben Nelson
NE
Democrat
Feb. 24, 2000
257
Norm Coleman
MN
Republican
Feb. 11, 2002
267
Jim Webb
VA
Democrat
Feb. 7, 2006
273
Hillary Clinton
NY
Democrat
Feb. 6, 2000
275
Maria Cantwell
WA
Democrat
Jan. 19, 2000
293
Mel Martinez
FL
Republican
Jan. 5, 2004
302
John Thune
SD
Republican
Jan. 5, 2004
302
David Vitter
LA
Republican
Dec. 17, 2003
321
Tom Udall
NM
Democrat
Nov. 10, 2007
360
Kay Hagan
NC
Democrat
Oct. 30, 2007
371
Saxby Chambliss
GA
Republican
Oct. 16, 2001
385
John Sununu
NH
Republican
Oct. 15, 2001
386
Mike Johanns
NE
Republican
Oct. 10, 2007
391
Jim Risch
ID
Republican
Oct. 9, 2007
392
Sherrod Brown
OH
Democrat
Oct. 6, 2005
397
Elizabeth Dole
NC
Republican
Sep. 22, 2001
409
John Cornyn
TX
Republican
Sep. 21, 2001
410
John Corzine
NJ
Democrat
Sep. 23, 1999
411
Tom Carper
DE
Democrat
Sep. 21, 1999
413
Jeanne Shaheen
NH
Democrat
Sep. 14, 2007
417
Mark Warner
VA
Democrat
Sep. 13, 2007
418
Claire McCaskill
MO
Democrat
Aug. 30, 2005
434
Jeff Merkley
OR
Democrat
Aug. 1, 2007
461
Bernie Sanders
VT
Independent
Jul. 5, 2005
490
Jon Tester
MT
Democrat
May 24, 2005
532
Ben Cardin
MD
Democrat
Apr. 26, 2005
560
Mark Pryor
AR
Democrat
Apr. 23, 2001
561
Amy Klobuchar
MN
Democrat
Apr. 18, 2005
568
Mark Udall
CO
Democrat
Apr. 15, 2007
569
Sheldon Whitehouse
RI
Democrat
Apr. 4, 2005
582
Debbie Stabenow
MI
Democrat
Mar. 29, 1999
589
Bill Nelson
FL
Democrat
Mar. 18, 1999
600
Bob Casey
PA
Democrat
Mar. 4, 2005
613
Lindsey Graham
SC
Republican
Feb. 21, 2001
622
John Ensign
NV
Republican
Feb. 19, 1999
627
Al Franken
MN
Democrat
Feb. 14, 2007
629
Richard Burr
NC
Republican
Feb. 10, 2003
631
Barack Obama
IL
Democrat
Jan. 21, 2003
651
Johnny Isakson
GA
Republican
Jan. 15, 2003
657
Jim DeMint
SC
Republican
Dec. 16, 2002
687
George Allen
VA
Republican
Dec. 5, 1998
703
Mel Carnahan**
MO
Democrat
Nov. 4, 1998
734
Bob Corker
TN
Republican
Oct. 13, 2004
755
Average
 
 
 
448
* Frank Lautenberg was added at the 11th hour to the New Jersey ballot when the Democratic Party had to fill the slot after incumbent Robert Torricelli withdrew from the race. ** Mel Carnahan received the most votes on Election Day after dying on October 17, 2000 in a plane crash. His wife Jeanne was appointed to the seat. Data compiled by Smart Politics.

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