Will the Republican finally wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats? The New York Times fixes the odds of that happening at 2-to-1. But, for the Republicans to make that a reality, they must defeat at least three incumbent senators and take three open seats, while holding on in a hotly contested race in Georgia, and successfully defending Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from a stiff Democratic challenge.
But if history is a guide, Republican triumph won’t come easy. The last time the GOP unseated more than two incumbents in a single cycle was in 1980. Thirty-four years ago, America elected Ronald Reagan as president, and sent a dozen Democratic senators to an early retirement. Since then, Republicans have demonstrated proficiency at winning open seats, but are remedial when it comes to knocking off incumbents.
To be sure, Republicans won the Senate back in 1994 and again in 2002. Still, ousting sitting senators just isn’t their thing. Yes, the Tea Party took down Senate veterans like Indiana’s Richard Lugar and Utah’s Robert Bennett in intramural nominating contests, but actually besting a Democrat who already is in the Senate is a whole other story.
The Republicans’ shortcomings can be laid at the feet of America’s changing attitudinal and demographic tapestry, and the tendency of the Republicans to treat statewide races as they do local congressional elections — and then simply amping-up parochial attitudes and expectations. This is not a recipe for success.
What it takes to get elected to the House from the rural Midwest is different from what it takes to become the U.S. Senator from Missouri or Indiana. More campaign dollars and a louder megaphone are by themselves not enough to win swing states.
When Republican Todd Akin mouthed-off about “legitimate rape”, it cost him his shot at defeating first-term Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill in 2012. When Richard Mourdock mused about rape being God’s will, there went the GOP’s chance to grab an open seat in Indiana.
Akin’s and Mourdock’s views are a minority among Republicans. But they’re not all that rare, much as Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel’s take on race and ethnicity is not unheard of within urban America — it’s just that Rangel isn’t running for senate anytime soon.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. Democratic senators from swing states usually don’t fit the Republican caricature of being wild-eyed liberal firebrands. In fact, they are anything but, and that makes the game that much tougher.
According to the National Journal, the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this cycle are political centrists. Arkansas’s Mark Pryor is the fifty-third most liberal senator; Kay Hagan of North Carolina is ranked fifty-first and Alaska’s Mark Begich is 48th. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu is number 44. No one would confuse their records with those of New York’s Chuck Schumer, Connecticut’s Chris Murphy, and Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, all of whom are in a three-way tie for the distinction of being the Senate’ most liberal, and come from states that last went Republican in a presidential year in the 1980s.
Given that Begich, Hagan, Landrieu and Pryor each hail from states that went for Mitt Romney, moderation is a matter of survival. North Carolina isn’t the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Still, for some, ideology can trump everything — even local geography.
For example, after Conservative James Buckley squeaked by and won a three-way New York senate race in 1970 by defeating Republican Charles Goodell — the father of the current N.F.L. Commissioner, and Democrat Dick Ottinger, the third-party Buckley proceeded to oppose a federal bailout of New York City, back when the City was a financial mess, teetering on bankruptcy. As a senator from the Empire State, Buckley’s stance was “courageous,” to put it charitably, and in 1976, Buckley lost reelection to Daniel Patrick Moynihan by more than 400,000 votes.
Yet not everyone has learned from Buckley’s mistake, that it’s one thing to be a conservative, and another thing to totally ignore the demands of the voters at home. The Arkansas senate race is a prime example.
There, Republican challenger Rep. Tom Cotton should be ahead of Mark Pryor, and for most of the race Cotton has held the narrowest of leads. Not anymore: A Rasmussen poll out last week now shows Pryor ahead by a whisker, and the race is now essentially a tie.
It didn’t have to be that way. Cotton, a freshman congressman, couldn’t resist voting against the farm bill both earlier this year and in 2013, and that may prove to be his Achilles Heel. Cotton made the Kochs brothers happy with those votes, but not Arkansas’s voters.
Arkansas is rural, poor and Bill Clinton’s home state; it is not Wyoming. Think Walmart, not hedge fund heaven. Cotton’s votes have left him unnecessarily vulnerable, and could cost the Republicans in November.
Still, there is plenty to commend about Cotton, and he is a formidable candidate. A Harvard Law School graduate, and an ex-Army officer who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cotton is not a former community organizer with a self-professed strategy deficit.
Right now, the biggest races are still toss-ups, with polls showing see-sawing leads across-the-board. To the GOP’s credit, the Republicans have avoided nominating someone like Akin, Mourdock or Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell as their party’s standard bearers.
The 2014 Republican field is looking disciplined and competitive compared to past years. Republican gains in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia are almost assured, open seats in red states all. The questions are where does the GOP go from there? How does it get to six? Does Barack Obama’s unpopularity cost his own party the Senate, and most of all, can the Republicans send more than two incumbents packing?
Expect a late Election Night.