Will Republicans Blow Their Senate Chances One More Time?

In 2010, the  most favorable environment for Republicans since the 1994 midterms, the GOP picked up 63 seats to take control of the House of Representatives. Nationally, the GOP won the House vote by 7%, after losing by 11% two years earlier.  Republicans also gained six Senate seats that  November, and they won a surprise victory earlier in the Massachusetts special election for Senate (Scott Brown).  The extent of the GOP sweep carried over into governorships and state legislative seats.  Republicans picked up Senate seats in solidly Democratic Illinois (Mark Kirk) and consistently Democratic Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey). Republicans also picked up seats in Arkansas, Indiana, Wisconsin, and North Dakota.

Republicans suffered three defeats in potentially winnable Senate races in 2010. Delaware, where Mike Castle, the only GOP candidate capable of winning statewide, was defeated in a party primary; Colorado, where Ken Buck  lost narrowly to an appointed Democratic senator (less than 2%); and Nevada, where Sharron Angle was  beaten fairly decisively by Harry Reid.  In all three states, Tea Party candidates knocked off candidates in GOP primaries who likely would have run stronger in November. Only Nevada, among the three, might have remained with the Democrats regardless of the GOP nominee.

It was much worse for the GOP in 2012, as they not only did  not gain Senate seats as was anticipated, but also lost a net two seats. Maine was lost when Olympia Snowe retired. Had Republicans gotten closer to a majority in 2010 -- winning, say, Colorado and Delaware -- Snowe might have run again and would have won easily. Scott Brown lost in Massachusetts, in large part because voters in the state (more of whom liked Brown more than his opponent, the churlish Elizabeth Warren) were concerned about Republicans gaining control of the Senate.

Two seats were outright blown following disastrous comments about abortion and rape by Todd Akin in Missouri (a very winnable seat against Claire McCaskill, in a state Romney carried  by 10%) and by Richard Mourdoch in Indiana, who was looking to succeed Richard Lugar in  a state Romney  won by 9%.  The biggest surprise was that the GOP candidate Rick Berg lost an open Senate seat by 1% in North Dakota, a state carried by Mitt  Romney by 20%.  Montana was another disappointment,  with GOP nominee Denny Rehberg failing to knock off incumbent Jon Tester in a state Romney carried by 14%.

A good case can be made that with better candidates or messaging in the last two cycles, the GOP today would have at least  50 members in the Senate, not 45, where they will be after Cory Booker’s coronation in the New Jersey special election.

The 2014 midterms appear to  be another target-rich environment for Republicans hoping to take control of the Senate. To accomplish that, it will take a pickup of six net seats.  Until recently, most analysts looked only at the pickup opportunities and assumed that the GOP would easily defend the seats it already controlled in 2014.  That is no longer the case. Both Kentucky and Georgia represent real pickup opportunities for Democrats, and while the GOP is currently favored in both states, neither is a safe seat and both will be expensive to defend.

On the plus side, the GOP has done a good job of recruiting candidates to run in states where Republicans have dominated in recent years. This is particularly true in Arkansas, where Representative Tom Cotton is at least 50-50 to  beat Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, and in West Virginia, where Congresswoman Shelley Capito is favored to win the seat of retiring Senator Jay Rockefeller. These two states have shifted more dramatically towards the Republicans than any others in the nation the last 15 years, with Romney winning each by well over 20%. Republicans are also favored to win the open seat of retiring Senator Tim Johnson in South Dakota (Mike Rounds) and the open seat in Montana of retiring Senator Max Baucus, two  more states Romney won easily in 2012. If Republicans win all four, and hold Georgia and Kentucky, then they need to win two of the following three to get to 51: Alaska (first-term Senator Mike Begich), Louisiana (Mary Landrieu), and North Carolina (first-term Senator Kay Hagan).  Mitt Romney won Alaska, Louisiana, and North Carolina, the first two decisively.

How  much risk is there for the GOP in defending Kentucky and Georgia? Georgia is an open-seat race, with Saxby Chambliss retiring. On election day 2008, Chambliss led by 49% to 46% over his Democratic opponent, but fell short of the required 50%, forcing a runoff. Chambliss won the second contest  easily by 14%, with black turnout dropping far more than white turnout without Barak Obama on the ballot in the runoff.  Georgia is a rapidly changing state, demographically. According to the 2010 census, it is 56% white, 30% black, and 9% Hispanic, though the white voting share is closer to 60%.  Republicans win white voters by 3 to 1 margins, and lose even more decisively among minority voters.  In recent statewide races, Republicans  have won by 8-10% margins (Romney 8%, Governor Deal 10%). McCain won by 5% in 2008.

Generally, turnout is more GOP friendly in midterms in Georgia than in presidential years, though Democrats are trying to get black voters aroused about alleged voter suppression efforts. They are  trying to get the black voter share of all voters up to 2012 and 2008 levels again in 2014.  The Democrats have selected Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former four-term centrist Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, to be their standard-bearer in 2014.  It is a smart pick. Nunn will sail to her party nomination, while Republicans battle it out in a multi-candidate primary.  All the well worn “war on women” themes are certain to be rolled out to try to pick off suburban women who may be put off if the GOP nominee turns out to be a right-wing flamethrower in the Todd Akin mode.

Three current GOP House members are competing for the nomination, including Jack Kingston, Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun. Kingston is considered the most centrist nominee, and Broun the most conservative.  Broun has called evolution and the big bang theory “lies straight from the pit of hell."  Gingrey and Broun are currently atop the polls, and Gingrey has raised the most  money ($2.6 million).  There are other candidates as well, including former candidate for governor Karen Handel and David Perdue, the son of the former governor. Handel is  attacking all three congressmen for their long years in Washington, providing general-election material for Nunn, much as Newt Gingrich set up the anti-Bain attacks on Mitt Romney for Obama’s general-election campaign.

Kentucky is a far different story. The state is one of the least diverse in America: 86% white and only  8% black. This should be far more favorable terrain for the Republicans than Georgia, particularly since the sitting senator, Mitch McConnell, is running for re-election. However, McConnell  has never won by huge margins, and held on in 2008 by only 6%, running  far behind John McCain, who won the state by 16%. The state was even less enthusiastic about Barack Obama in 2012, with Romney winning by 26%.

Democrats other than Obama have been very competitive and at times won statewide races in Kentucky. The governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, is a Democrat who has won by big margins both times he ran.   McConnell is 71, more than twice the age of his  Democratic opponent,  Alison Lundergan Grimes, now 34, assuming McConnell survives a primary challenge from wealthy businessman Matt Bevin.

Mcconnell is favored to win the primary, but the general-election contest will  be close. McConnell is already trying to associate Grimes with Obama, Pelosi and Harry Reid, all of whom are very unpopular in the commonwealth. Grimes will use her youth and McConnell’s long history of what she calls  “obstruction” in Washington as evidence of the need for a change and a new generation of elected officials.  Grimes is a far stronger candidate than actress Ashley Judd would have been. Judd, who considered entering  the race for several months,  would have been the toast of the Matt Damon/Hollywood crowd, but her positions on the environment and women’s rights  would have been “out of step," to use a New York Times expression, with most Kentucky voters.

Sean Trende, in a thorough analysis of the Kentucky race, argued that the state’s rural character will play against Grimes, especially given the president’s EPA war on coal -- a big issue in eastern Kentucky.  McConnell will have all the campaign money he needs to attempt to tie Grimes to everything the state does not like about Obama’s policies. McConnell is a political survivor, but there have been other older GOP senators who have gone down in primaries or general elections in recent cycles in GOP friendly states -- Ted Stevens and Richard Lugar, among them.

Both Georgia and Kentucky may be races decided by 5% or less.  Both races will suck up campaign cash that otherwise would be available in other states where there are good pickup opportunities. I think the odds of the GOP winning both Georgia and Kentucky are about 50-50. Losing one would require winning all seven of the pickup states, a pretty unlikely scenario, unless it is a massive wave year for the GOP.