Retaking the Senate should be, if not easy, then at least straightforward for Republicans. They need to recruit attractive candidates to run for seats in seven red states held by Democrats—not to mention an open seat in purple Iowa—and make sure the eventual nominees are viable and well funded. Because of the red hue of 2014’s battlegrounds, the party should be able to exploit issues on the national agenda, such as gun control and immigration reform, that stir up culturally conservative voters. The math to achieve the six-seat gain necessary for Senate control (assuming Democrats win the upcoming Massachusetts special election) is hard for the GOP, but its candidates should at least have a fighting chance to solve the equation.
If only it were that simple. To their dismay, Senate Republicans are discovering that their chances of retaking the chamber might rest as much with their House GOP brethren as with their own efforts. Increasingly, it’s the lower chamber that defines the Republican Party brand—particularly during high-stakes fights like the fiscal-cliff and sequester standoffs in which House Republicans play a central role.
This prominence is problematic because the House GOP doesn’t live in the same political universe as the rest of the party; the congressional map, thanks to redistricting and the tendency of Democratic voters to live in tightly packed cities, leans to the right. GOP nominee Mitt Romney, despite drawing millions of fewer votes than President Obama, won 227 of 435 congressional districts, a solid majority. That gives House Republicans room to drive right on their agenda without fear of losing their majority, which is considered safe for 2014.
The fallout, however, can harm GOP candidates—especially Senate Republicans—who don’t run on the same tilted playing field. “If we did a content analysis [of media coverage], there’s no doubt they define the Republican Party,” said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, referring to House Republicans. “It’s where the most conservative posture is taken, which is the most out of line with the country.”
This problem was brought to a head during the House’s budget clashes with Senate Democrats and President Obama. Each fight—including the fiscal-cliff squabble to close the most recent congressional session—seems to ding the party’s popularity, and the current back-and-forth over the 10-year, $1.2 trillion sequester is no different. A February poll by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News found that just 29 percent of adults held a favorable view of the GOP—far less than the 49 percent who rated Obama favorably.
At a time when the GOP should be rebuilding its image after last November’s setback, the party is actually losing popularity. In October 2012, the NBC/WSJ survey found that 36 percent of adults viewed the party favorably, 7 points higher than its standing now. House Republicans aren’t solely responsible for the image problems—Romney’s gaffe-prone candidacy, an at-times abrasive conservative media, and other Republicans all share the blame. (As one GOP pollster told National Journal, the electoral drubbing was a “team effort.”)
But House Republicans are largely to blame for locking the party into the same debate that proved so harmful during the 2012 elections: arguing for a cuts-only agenda, as they advocate once again for the sequester, while Obama pushes for a more popular mix of reductions and tax increases on the wealthy. On issues such as immigration or gun control, the prospects for which are murky at best in the House, GOP members could similarly buck legislation that is broadly popular with the public.
To say nothing of a possible House decision to reconsider legislation, as it has done with Rep. Paul Ryan’s eponymous budget, that alters an entitlement program such as Medicare. Already, 62 percent of adults think the Republican Party is out of touch with the American people, a mid-February survey from the Pew Research Center found. In the same survey, 52 percent said the party was too extreme. “The House Republicans are being perceived right now as ideological naysayers,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic strategist who works with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “I think this is clearly hurtful when you’re trying to run for Senate.”
Of course, the actions of House Republicans won’t determine the outcome of every Senate race. Senate GOP candidates will still get to pick their agenda, offering a chance for moderation. And the Senate candidates can still argue that Washington’s dysfunction should be blamed on Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Democrats, not on House Republicans. After all, it was Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spearheaded a last-minute fiscal-cliff deal to raise revenue. They might be a minority, but they’re not ineffectual, said John Feehery, a longtime GOP hand on Capitol Hill. “At a moment of maximum impact, they swoop in and strike a deal that catches House Republicans off balance,” he said. Senate Republicans are similarly working out compromises on immigration and universal background checks for gun purchases.
Senate Republicans will also benefit from an electoral map that, while perhaps not as tilted to the right as the House’s, is favorable. An open-seat race in West Virginia, combined with elections in Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, and other red states, means the House GOP agenda might not be a killer. “I’m not 100 percent convinced there’s quite the same disconnect this election cycle between Senate Republicans’ political opportunities and the House Republican points of view,” said GOP consultant Glen Bolger.
Maybe. But it would be nice for Senate Republicans if they won because of their House brethren, not in spite of them.
This article appears in the March 2, 2013, edition of National Journal as The Captives.