Republicans Have a Way To Retake the Senate. If Only They Had the Candidates.

It’s hard to take back the Senate without candidates in place to exploit voters’ sour mood over Obamacare.

Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Ken Buck, talks with supporters at the Weld County Victory Office before casting his ballot in early voting on October 27, 2010 in Greely, Colorado.
National Journal
Kevin Brennan
Nov. 18, 2013, 5:59 a.m.

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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