In late October 2006, almost three months after this column projected that the GOP would likely lose the House and stood a 50-50 chance of losing the Senate, I upped my estimate of the total number of House seats that Republicans would drop. This prompted a prominent conservative blogger to write that I had "jumped the shark."
Not being particularly hip on pop culture terms, I naturally consulted Wikipedia and found out that "jumping the shark" was an idiom to describe the moment of downturn for a previously successful enterprise. It's a reference to an episode of the old television sitcom Happy Days, when Fonzie goes to Hollywood and jumps over a shark on water skis. That was the point in the series when many viewers thought the show had gone too far. Viewers of the current TV show House might be familiar with this concept as well. To finish the story, the conservative blogger, after the 2006 election ballots were counted, graciously apologized, but as a result of the experience I learned a new term.
That phrase came to mind on Tuesday night when Delaware voters opted for ideological purity over political pragmatism by nominating an unelectable tea party candidate, Christine O'Donnell, over moderate Rep. Michael Castle for the Senate. Republican chances of scoring a net gain of 10 Senate seats and a majority suddenly plummeted, from maybe a 30 percent chance to something more like a single-digit chance. The Democratic nominee in Delaware, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, is a very good candidate, one who would likely beat any Republican in the state, except Mike Castle. With Castle gone, so is the seat for the GOP, and the party must now effectively run the table to win a Senate majority.
To secure the Senate, Republicans must first hold all 18 of their own seats. (The only races in any real doubt are the open-seat contests in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire.) Next, they must win the open Democratic seats in North Dakota and Indiana and defeat Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas -- three outcomes that appear likely. Finally, they must win all seven Democratic-held seats that The Cook Political Report has in the toss-up column: the open seats in Illinois and Pennsylvania, and the seats of Barbara Boxer (CA), Michael Bennet (CO), Harry Reid (NV), Patty Murray (WA), and Russell Feingold (WI). If Republicans fall short in any one of these contests, they will have to pick up one more seat in either of the open-seat races in Connecticut or West Virginia. It's certainly possible, but the odds are much worse now that Castle has lost.
Republicans caught a break in another primary on Tuesday night. In New Hampshire, former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, a relative moderate, narrowly defeated Manchester lawyer Ovide Lamontagne, a conservative. Unlike O'Donnell in Delaware, Lamontagne would have been electable, but the path to victory for Republicans would have been a lot more problematic than if Ayotte were the nominee in the race against Democrat Paul Hodes.
To be clear: This year offers a terrific political environment for Republicans, one comparable, though certainly not identical, to 1994. But Republican primary voters, and particularly those backing the tea party candidates, seem intent on testing the GOP wave to see how high and how strong it really is. In Kentucky, primary voters cast aside a cinch winner and nominated ophthalmologist Rand Paul, who's not a heavy favorite. I would not extend this analogy to GOP nominee Sharron Angle in Nevada. Although she is by almost all accounts an awful candidate, her two rivals in the primary were nothing great either. To the extent that Democrat Harry Reid has a 50-50 chance of getting re-elected, it is largely because he convinced every easily electable Republican not to run.
With the Senate at best a long shot for Republicans, it will be interesting to see how the conservative independent expenditure groups react. Will they retool their efforts to back GOP House candidates, many of whom are chronically underfunded? Or will they pursue the more glamorous and less labor-intensive course of pushing Senate candidates? These conservative groups have put almost $3 into Senate races for every $1 they have put into House contests -- a strategy that seems to defy logic, even before their party's Delaware setback.
This article appears in the Sep. 18, 2010, edition of National Journal.