Why 2014 Is Do-or-Die For the GOP

Republicans can’t afford to have any weak candidates next year if they want to regain control of the upper chamber.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 16: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to the Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. On the 16th day of a government shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that they have reached to an agreement to raise the nation's debt ceiling and reopen the government.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Oct. 28, 2013, 5:44 p.m.

This is not go­ing to be one of those columns that we read al­most every oth­er year pro­claim­ing the next elec­tion to be the most im­port­ant one since the Greeks de­veloped the idea of demo­cracy 2,500 or so years ago. It does, however, make the case that this elec­tion is a pretty im­port­ant one in terms of de­term­in­ing the Sen­ate’s par­tis­an bal­ance of power for the bet­ter part of the next dec­ade.

Any dis­cus­sion of Sen­ate elec­tions has to start with the ob­ser­va­tion that what happened six years earli­er — the is­sues, dy­nam­ics, cir­cum­stances, and out­come of that elec­tion — ef­fect­ively set the table for this up­com­ing midterm. In the House, with two-year terms, the play­ing field is de­term­ined in the pre­vi­ous elec­tion. In the Sen­ate, with six-year terms, it is what happened six years earli­er that sets the field. If one party had a great elec­tion and picked up an un­usu­ally large num­ber of seats one year, that party is likely to be over­ex­posed six years later. It not only will of­ten have sig­ni­fic­antly more seats up and at risk, but of­ten will have some fresh­men with­in the ranks who were first elec­ted with a strong par­tis­an tail­wind, some of whom might not have won un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances.

First, let’s look at the last four rounds of Sen­ate elec­tions. In 2006, with the Ir­aq war weigh­ing heav­ily on him, Pres­id­ent Bush went in­to his second midterm elec­tion with his Gal­lup job ap­prov­al rat­ings down to 38 per­cent. With a strong wind at their backs, Demo­crats picked up six Sen­ate seats, set­ting the stage for the 2012 elec­tions, when they would have 23 seats up com­pared with just 10 for the GOP. Re­pub­lic­ans entered the 2012 elec­tion with high ex­pect­a­tions that they could cap­it­al­ize on this over­ex­pos­ure. However, with a weak na­tion­al tick­et, primary voters who ten­ded to pick weak nom­in­ees, and strong GOP res­ist­ance among minor­ity, wo­men, young, and mod­er­ate voters, the party lost eight of the 10 races that The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port had rated as “Toss Up” go­ing in­to Elec­tion Day and ended up los­ing two seats when they had been ex­pect­ing to pick up at least that many. A real op­por­tun­ity to cap­ture con­trol of the Sen­ate, set up by the 2006 elec­tion, slipped through the GOP’s fin­gers in 2012.

In the 2008 elec­tion, just two months after the fin­an­cial crisis, with the Obama-Biden tick­et beat­ing the Mc­Cain-Pal­in tick­et 52.9-45.7 per­cent and a strong turnout among young­er and minor­ity voters, Demo­crats picked up eight Sen­ate seats. This meant that in 2014, Demo­crats would have 21 seats at risk, to just 14 for the GOP. Thus, again Re­pub­lic­ans have an op­por­tun­ity to score big gains, but that op­por­tun­ity could slip through their fin­gers as it did two years earli­er. If we give Re­pub­lic­ans the be­ne­fit of the doubt in the fight to pick up open Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia, the six seats most likely to de­term­ine wheth­er Demo­crats will hold the Sen­ate are all in states car­ried by Mitt Rom­ney. These are Alaska (Mark Be­gich), Arkan­sas (Mark Pry­or), Louisi­ana (Mary Landrieu), and North Car­o­lina (Kay Hagan), all Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents, and Re­pub­lic­an seats in Geor­gia (where Saxby Cham­b­liss is re­tir­ing) and Ken­tucky (Mitch Mc­Con­nell). In North Car­o­lina, Rom­ney won by only 2 points, and in Geor­gia he won by only 8 points. In the oth­er four states lis­ted, Rom­ney ran up huge mar­gins of vic­tory. However, none of these races are gimme putts — in fact, the toughest seats for Demo­crats to hold are at no worse odds than 50-50.

As­sum­ing that all oth­er races go the dir­ec­tion that they are widely ex­pec­ted to go, and Re­pub­lic­ans win the Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia con­tests, the GOP then has to win five out of those fi­nal six con­tests. To put it dif­fer­ently, even if Re­pub­lic­ans hold Geor­gia and Mc­Con­nell wins in Ken­tucky (neither is a sure bet at all), the GOP would still have to knock out three Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents, which is as many as they have un­seated in the last five elec­tions com­bined (since 2004, the only in­cum­bent Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors to lose gen­er­al elec­tions were Blanche Lin­coln, Tom Daschle, and Russ Fein­gold. If the GOP loses either Geor­gia or Ken­tucky, they would have to beat all four Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents up in 2014 to win a ma­jor­ity.

The reas­on next year is so make-or-break for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans is be­cause in 2016, when all of the seats they won in 2010 come up — they net­ted a six-seat net gain that year — there will be 24 GOP seats up, com­pared with only 10 for Demo­crats, lead­ing to some ser­i­ous Re­pub­lic­an over­ex­pos­ure. Sev­en of the 24 GOP sen­at­ors up are hail­ing from states that Obama car­ried in 2012. After hav­ing had plen­ti­ful Demo­crat­ic tar­gets in 2012 and 2014, it will be Re­pub­lic­ans in 2016 who will have the most in­cum­bents in the crosshairs.

All of this is to say that Re­pub­lic­ans really have to do well in the Sen­ate elec­tions in 2014, largely be­cause they will have few op­por­tun­it­ies for gains in 2016, a year in which they will be play­ing de­fense, not of­fense. This means that Re­pub­lic­ans can­not nom­in­ate some of the more exot­ic can­did­ates that they nom­in­ated in Delaware and Nevada in 2010, or weak can­did­ates with weak cam­paigns as they did that year in Col­or­ado. Com­par­able can­did­ates to Todd Akin or Richard Mour­dock, the 2012 Mis­souri and In­di­ana can­did­ates whose nom­in­a­tions ef­fect­ively meant that the GOP seized de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory in mul­tiple states, should be avoided. So, the 2014 Sen­ate elec­tions really are im­port­ant.

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