Republicans enjoyed a hurricane-force wind at their backs going into the 2010 elections. On Election Day, GOP candidates running for seats in the House realized the full potential of the wave they were riding by earning a massive and historic 63-seat net gain. However, Republican candidates vying for their place in the Senate did not. Sure, they did well, picking up six seats in the upper chamber, but they missed out on several additional opportunities. Amy Walter, national editor for CookPolitical.com, points out a major reason why. She writes:
In 2010, in what was a “wave year” just two of the seven toss-up races went to Republicans, though public polling predicted that four of those seven (57 percent) would flip to the GOP. Terrible GOP candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck were the real culprits in the GOP underperformance that year.
Party nominees matter — even in wave elections. So, with the primary season drawing to a close, let’s take a look at the candidates from each party who made it past the qualifying round and evaluate how those choices impact their party’s prospects for success in Senate and gubernatorial elections this November.
Thirty-six Senate seats are up for grabs this year. Twenty-three of them are non-competitive races which the incumbent party is very likely to retain. The remaining 13 seats are either competitive or non-competitive projected takeovers (South Dakota, for example). Coincidentally, 36 governorships, of which 14 are currently competitive, are also on tap. Looking at the primary lineups for these competitive races, we see that they fall into three different categories.
Seven senators, 6 Democrats and 1 Republican, are seeking reelection in competitive races this year. The Democrats are Mark Begich (AK), Mark Pryor (AR), Mark Udall (CO), Mary Landrieu (LA), Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Kay Hagan (NC). They are joined by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY). Eleven incumbent governors are also facing competitive reelection bids in 2014. They consist of 8 Republicans and 3 Democrats.
Thirteen Senate primary contests from eight different states and twelve gubernatorial primaries in eleven states held primaries that were, well, no contest. I won’t list them all here, but it is worth noting that in some cases — Arkansas GOP Senate, Georgia DEM Senate, for example — having a non-competitive primary meant the nominee was the top choice of the party from the outset. In other cases — Michigan GOP Senate, Montana DEM Senate — the absence of primary competition resulted from the best choice deciding against running. The first two categories are included for completeness. However, these races are not very useful when evaluating the role of primary voters in their parties’ prospects. Their impact is gleaned best from races which featured a primary election in doubt.
Let’s take a look at several of these primaries race by race and grade primary voters on whether they have improved or impaired their parties’ chances by the choice they made.
Alaska Senate (GOP)
Republicans here are salivating at the opportunity to unseat Mark Begich in this conservative state. Three high-profile candidates vied for that honor. GOP voters made the right choice by selecting former Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan. While Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell would have given Begich a strong challenge, Republicans avoided a concession by not picking lightning rod Joe Miller. GRADE: A
Georgia Senate (GOP)
Businessman David Perdue and Congressman Jack Kingston got the most votes in the primary election. However, since neither was able to eclipse the requisite 50% +1 to avoid a runoff, Georgia Republicans had to return to the ballot box a month later to finalize their pick. They get high marks for picking Perdue, but the prolonged runoff period subjected the nominee to more intra-party conflict and gave Democrat Michelle Nunn a longer grace period. GRADE: B Iowa Senate (GOP)
The biggest accomplishment by GOP primary voters here was to avoid having the state convention decide their nominee. Joni Ernst, who has an enviable bio well-suited to run for public office, captured more than enough votes to earn the nomination outright. A convention-brokered selection could have resulted in an untenable general election option (subs req). GRADE: A
North Carolina Senate (GOP)
Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan is one of the more vulnerable incumbents in the Senate this cycle, and Tarheel Republicans had at least three viable options who were faring well, pre-primary, against her in the polls. Thom Tillis, the GOP establishment candidate, prevailed, avoiding a potentially damaging runoff in the process. While Tea Party fans aren’t as keen on the career politician as they would have been with either physician Greg Brannon or Pastor Mark Harris, Tillis is an electable choice in the general election — and avoiding that runoff is a big positive. GRADE: A-
Colorado Governor (GOP)
Primary voters on the Republican side get high marks for not nominating unelectable Tom Tancredo. They settled on Bob Beauprez, 2006 gubernatorial nominee, by just 3 points over Tancredo in a four-way race. And while Beauprez was not impressive in his failed bid for governor 8 years ago, he has seemed a stronger candidate so far this year. GRADE: A-
Hawaii Governor (DEM)
Democratic voters in the Aloha State made history this year by handing Neil Abercrombie the largest primary defeat of a sitting governor in U.S. history. Judging from pre-primary polling, they made a great move in doing so. As a result, they have improved their chances of keeping this deeply blue state in the fold. State Senator David Ige still trails Republican nominee Duke Aiona, Jr. in the polls, but he has the potential of staging the comeback Abercrombie could not. GRADE: A+
Illinois Governor (GOP)
Bruce Rauner has the funds to finance his campaign for governor. That’s important in a state that contains the expensive Chicago media market. Also, as a political newcomer, he doesn’t have the track record the other Republican contenders have. That’s likely a good thing as well in this race against a wily, battle-tested incumbent like Democrat Pat Quinn. GRADE: A
Wisconsin Governor (DEM)
Democrats would like to get rid of Scott Walker perhaps more than any other governor. He survived their recall election in 2012 and has taken steps to undermine their power base in the state. Democratic primary voters selected educator Mary Burke to take him on in 2014. Judging from how she is performing in the polls so far, it looks like they have made a good choice. As of this writing, Election Projection shows Burke defeating Walker by a fraction. GRADE: A
That’s a lot of good grades! Unlike the Republican primary disasters noted by Walter, this year’s primary results show that voters from both parties have done a good job picking the right nominees to make the most of their general election opportunities.