Mourdock. Akin. O’Donnell. For political junkies, these Republicans are famous for throwing away winnable Senate seats in recent election cycles. For Republican operatives, they are the stuff of nightmares, mistakes never to be repeated and the fuel animating a massive effort to put good candidates on ballots across the country.
Judging by the results of last week’s Senate primaries, Republicans appear to have figured out how to avoid unforced errors this time around. Establishment Republicans were justifiably delighted with their “mini super Tuesday,” which capped off a strong string of primary results for the GOP this spring. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell held off a challenger whose election would have made Kentucky’s Senate seat far more vulnerable. In Oregon and Nebraska, Republicans got some fresh faces in Monica Wehby and Ben Sasse, and in North Carolina and Georgia, electable names have made it to the fall ballot or at least to a runoff.
That is, of course, a pleasant change from previous election cycles, where disastrous candidates made big headlines and squandered pickup opportunities. Yet the prevailing narrative, that Republicans have struggled in Senate elections primarily because of a slew of bad candidates, misses the bigger picture: The roots of the Republican Senate minority predate the Tea Party. Nearly a dozen Republican incumbents were ousted before the first Tea Party rally was ever held. And since the dawn of the Tea Party, for every seat lost by a train-wreck candidacy there’s been an eminently winnable seat with a qualified Republican candidate that simply slipped through Republican hands. This November, the GOP’s road back to a sustainable majority will require giving voters a real reason to elect its candidates.
Both 2006 and 2008 were relatively disastrous for the GOP, first elevating Harry Reid to Senate majority leader and then handing him a nearly filibuster-proof majority. The 2006 election was a wipeout in both chambers of Congress for Republicans, and a half-dozen incumbent Republicans were sent packing. Arguably just two of those losers, Sens. Rick Santorum and George Allen, were candidates who were too far to the right for their state or who messed up big time (remember “Macaca,” anyone?). And let’s not forget that another of those losses was the Tea Party’s polar opposite, Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who boldly paved the way for those like Charlie Crist who would fail as a Republican and then run a a Democrat.
In 2008, Republicans lost more incumbents than they did open seats. In 2010, Republicans picked up a half-dozen seats, and while losses in Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada were all chalked up to Tea Party candidates, those same Tea Party forces gave Republicans winners in Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. In 2012, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock imploded and took down the GOP brand with them, but Republican candidates in North Dakota and Montana just didn’t make it across the finish line.
Did a few bad Republican candidates throw away winnable seats? Absolutely. But along the way over the last eight years, a significant number of perfectly electable Republicans also have been dispatched, with far less fanfare. They didn’t lose because they said something offensive, or represented the fringe, or were forced to protest too strongly that they weren’t a witch. They lost because voters aren’t quite sure what a Republican Senate majority really gets them. And that has to change.
Senate Republicans know it, too. Some have started pushing for a concrete policy agenda, a “Contract With America” reboot, to tell people what exactly they would get from a Republican majority besides gridlock. And though McConnell reportedly is less enthusiastic about pushing a Senate-specific agenda, he spoke at an event last week rolling out a “reform conservative” agenda, with policy proposals on everything from taxes to education.
The 2014 elections offer enormous potential to Republicans. A number of vulnerable Democrats, last elected in the 2008 wave that put Barack Obama in the White House, are on the ballot. The demographics of the midterms, broadly speaking, appear to favor Republicans. And for Republicans to create a lasting majority, they will need sizable pickups as insurance heading into the 2016 election cycle, where the 2010 wave of Tea Party Republicans will be up for reelection.
Avoiding catastrophic candidates is an important first step to a Republican Senate majority. But it is not enough. If the Republican field is full of strong candidates who are certainly electable, it is more critical than ever that those candidates have something to say about what a Republican majority really means.