Republicans are giddy about their chances to retake the Senate on the back of a disaster known as Obamacare. There's just one problem: The GOP doesn't have the right candidates to make it happen.
Sure, in the high-profile races of 2014, Republicans have recruited competitive contenders to take on red-state Democrats. But in the second-tier contests, the ones that could suddenly become competitive if the national mood turns increasingly toxic for Democrats, the GOP's cast of hopefuls ranges from the unknown to the unelectable.
The importance of having viable nominees in these races was on full display last cycle. Republicans were expected to gain seats and perhaps take back the upper chamber. Instead, Democrats grew their majority by two by convincing serious recruits to run in races the party was expected to lose – like Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Joe Donnelly in Indiana. When the GOP nominees stumbled, Democrats had the right candidates in place to take advantage and score surprise victories.
The GOP will have a hard time pulling off similar upsets next year, even if Obamacare gives them the conditions to do so. Just consider these second-tier Senate races, where Republicans have failed to find candidates who might allow them to expand the Senate map:
Colorado: Rep. Cory Gardner, the hottest name in the Colorado Republican Party, disappointed the GOP in May when he announced he wouldn't run against Sen. Mark Udall. Perhaps even more troubling for Republicans is that fact that Ken Buck is running. Buck and his controversial comments famously cost Republicans a Senate seat in 2010 when he lost to Sen. Michael Bennet, and he's now the biggest name in an underwhelming field of GOP hopefuls.
New Hampshire: The long line of Republicans who have passed on the opportunity to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen soon may stretch all the way into Massachusetts. With every big name in the state party ruling out a bid, former Sen. Scott Brown has emerged as the last hope for a credible candidate. But few in New Hampshire actually expect Brown to run. That leaves Republicans with two mostly unknown contenders. Conservative activist Karen Testerman launched her campaign last week by pledging to emulate Sen. Ted Cruz if elected and former state Sen. Jim Rubens' bid got off to an embarrassing start when BuzzFeed unearthed a blog post he had written suggesting that the rise of women in the workplace has contributed to an increase in mass shootings.
Iowa: Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin's decision not to seek reelection in the swing state gave Republicans another prime pick-up opportunity. While Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley entered the race almost immediately and has raised money at a torrid pace, top Republican recruits Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Rep. Tom Latham passed. The GOP is left with a seven-candidate field stocked with unfamiliar names, likely pushing the nomination decision to a party convention that will choose the most conservative (and unelectable) contender.
Minnesota: Sen. Al Franken won the closest Senate race of 2008, unseating former Sen. Norm Coleman after a months-long recount battle. Franken's first reelection fight isn't shaping up to be nearly as tight. The GOP's top potential candidates, Reps. John Kline and Erick Paulsen, both decided to seek reelection instead of taking on Franken. Now businessman Mike McFadden has emerged as the favorite in a crowded primary, but he's a political novice who has so far avoided offering policy specifics.
New Mexico: The Land of Enchantment has grown less friendly to Republicans in recent years, in large part due to the GOP's struggles to appeal to Hispanics. But with popular Republican Gov. Susana Martinez at the top of the ticket next year, Republicans could have a shot against Sen. Tom Udall with the right candidate and a beneficial national environment. So far, no notable Republicans appear willing to run, leaving little-known attorney David Clements as the only declared candidate.
Lackluster recruits aside, Republicans could take back the majority next year by flipping six of the seven Democratic seats in GOP states. Plus, in the open-seat contest in Michigan, the party landed a solid candidate in Terri Lynn Land, who wasn't the GOP's first choice but still sits above recruits in other races.
Still, the dearth of credible candidates in these second-tier races gives Republicans a much smaller margin for error. As the GOP has learned over the past two election cycles, candidate implosions and unforeseen primary results can complicate the electoral math. Two of the red-state Democratic incumbents could prove tougher than expected to knock off next year. The GOP primary in Georgia could produce a far-right nominee, potentially ceding a Republican seat to Democrats. If problems like these arise, the GOP may look to expand the map beyond the clear-cut red states but find that there are no Joe Donnellys or Heidi Heitkamps waiting to pick up the slack.
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