In a wave election, as this one is shaping up to be, candidate quality is usually less important than the political environment and the color of one's jersey (red or blue). In 2006, there were plenty of GOP candidates who ran well-funded, smart campaigns and lost, while lots of weak Democrats went on to victory.
But that doesn't mean that candidates don't matter at all. In fact, there are two key Senate races where candidate quality is shaping up to be the issue.
The best example of this is Nevada. On paper, it's really hard to see how Majority Leader Harry Reid wins this thing, especially when that paper happens to have poll numbers written on it. We've yet to see any polling that shows Reid within spitting range of 50 percent. He's stuck somewhere between the high 30s and low 40s. In fact, the question isn't so much how good does Reid need to be to win, but how bad does the Republican need to be to lose it? Is it enough to be just "bumbling bad," or are we talking really, really bad, like criminally indicted bad?
Watching GOP frontrunner Sue Lowden stumble her way through a local TV interview where she discussed the possibility of "bartering" for health care, I was reminded of a key 2006 House contest in New Mexico. All signs were pointing to a loss for Republican incumbent Heather Wilson. But her Democratic opponent, Patsy Madrid, already not particularly popular or polished, completely flopped on a televised debate. The flop made it to a TV ad. And, in the end, Wilson pulled out an 861-vote victory.
Fortunately for Lowden, her flub -- paying your doctor in chickens, really? -- happened this spring instead of right before the election. Still, her campaign's inability to control the fallout suggests that they are going to have serious trouble in the fall. This was an unforced error. Imagine what happens when Reid starts really throwing the heat at her. If Lowden's handlers were smart, they'd keep her away from any more TV interviews for a while.
Then there's Illinois, where Democrats have long held that President Obama's popularity in such a dark blue state would boost even the weakest Democratic nominee. Now, however, even if Obama's popularity is off the charts, it's not going to be able to rescue 34-year old state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, whose family bank was just taken over by the FDIC.
Giannoulias tried to contain the damage after the weekend fallout, releasing a 60-second ad just three days after the bank's collapse. Still, his explanation that the family bank, like so many other small businesses around the country, was simply a victim of the bad economy only works when: 1) your bank didn't engage in risky subprime loans; and 2) your bank didn't loan money to guys with names like Rezko, "Jaws" and "Half Dollar."
Giannoulias' GOP opponent, Rep. Mark Kirk, is not likely to boast about being a member of Congress, but in a contest of which moniker is more unpopular this year -- failed banker or D.C. insider -- I'm guessing that the banker wins. Especially when that banker also happens to be responsible for the state's finances.
In the end, Reid's only opportunity to win his race is to make his GOP opponent more unpopular than he is. At this point, Lowden's certainly helping him in that task. Meanwhile, there's little that Giannoulias can do to make Kirk more unpopular than he. Showing pictures of Kirk with his arm around President George W. Bush, as his latest ad does, isn't going to be enough of a disincentive for voters, even in a state that gave Obama 62 percent of the vote.