Those who favor the notion that the Republicans should
take back control of the U.S. senate in the 2014 national
midterm elections should take notice that insurgent
forces on the conservative side are once again intending
to defeat incumbent GOP senators in primaries and
replace them with candidates who might not be able to
win in the general election.
This phenomenon in its present form first appeared in
2010, an otherwise good Republican cycle in which voters
returned control of the U.S. house to the GOP by a wide
margin. Republicans made gains in their U.S. senate
delegation that year, but fell short of their potential
when several of their incumbents were defeated in GOP
primaries and inappropriate, not-ready-for-prime-time
candidates were nominated in other races.
In 2012, Republicans were optimistic they would defeat
President Obama in his re-election effort, maintain
control of the U.S. house, and possibly win back control
of the U.S. senate. Their advantage was so great in the
number of vulnerable senate incumbents and open
vulnerable seats up for re-election that year, that it was
assumed at the very least that they would increase their
number of seats. In fact, they lost seats. Part of the
reason was the superior nationwide get-out-the vote
effort by the Democrats that year, and part of it was
that the liberal party put up outstanding candidates
in close races (Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota is a
case in point). In one race, the Democrats played “dirty
pool” by enabling a weak GOP candidate in the
Republican senate primary in Missouri to defeat
stronger candidates, and then as nominee, he behaved so
badly that the very vulnerable Democratic incumbent
was able to win. In Indiana, long-time incumbent
GOP Senator Richard Lugar was defeated in his
primary by a candidate much to his right, and like
the GOP nominee in Missouri, campaigned so poorly
that the Democrat won a seat considered “safe
Republican.” In other senate races, Republicans
did not nominate strong candidates, and lost several
opportunities to pick up seats from the Democrats.
Having so recently been badly burned within their own
party in choosing poor U.S. senate nominees, one would
think that the national Republican Party would take
strong and effective steps to avert these problems.
In the 2014 cycle approaching, however, (when again
Republicans have the numerical advantage in number
of contested seats) at least four otherwise “safe” GOP
incumbents might face challenges from the conservative
right. They include the senate minority leader Mitch
McConnell from Kentucky, Senator Lamar Alexander
for Tennessee, Senator Lindsey Graham of South
Carolina. and Senator Susan Collins from Maine.
Each are considered by some factions in their own
party too “moderate,” but none of them (perhaps
excluding McConnell) could lose in 2014 in the general
election. If they are replaced by other GOP candidates,
however, the seats could likely be won by Democrats,
especially if their replacements represented more extreme
views (as was the case in 2010 and 2012).
If the Republican were to lose all or even two of these
four “safe” seats, it would be almost impossible for the
party to regain control of the U.S. senate.
But that’s not all. In other states, with no GOP incumbent,
but vulnerable Democrats or open seats up for re-election,
there are so far several factional fights among Republicans
which might produce the kind of GOP senate nominees
which failed so badly in previous cycles.
One example of this is Iowa. Incumbent Democratic
Senator Tom Harkin is retiring. The other Iowa senator is
popular conservative Chuck Grassley. Terry Branstad is the
long-time GOP governor. Iowa is a swing state, and in 2014
could be a Republican pick-up. The Democrats have
already (informally) chosen Congressman Bruce Braley as
their senate candidate. On the GOP side, however, are
numerous hopefuls, some of whom hold views that make
them virtually unelectable in a general election (although
one of them could win the nomination in a crowded primary).
Republican chances to pick up senate seats in Montana,
South Dakota, West Virginia and Arkansas now look bright
because their likely nominees appear strong. Lacking so far
a competitive GOP nominee in Minnesota means that the
potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbent will win.
The same is true in New Hampshire and Delaware. But
potential GOP pick-ups in North Carolina, Alaska,
Louisiana and Michigan are becoming mired in many cases
by poor recruiting and/or intraparty squabbles. An open
contest in Georgia for a seat previously held by a Republican,
so far lacking a strong GOP candidate, could be lost.
It must be admitted that most of the favorable trend to the
Republicans in 2014, and in 2016, results from the lack of
success to date of President Obama and his administration
policies, both domestic and international. Unemployment
remains very high, and the economy seems stuck too close
to the bottom it recently reached. Security and privacy
issues which have arisen under Mr. Obama’s watch have
unnerved many Americans, and created uncertainty about
the Democrats ability to manage and lead. But, so far, the
Republicans have failed to present and persuade the
substance and the image of a better alternative. One
conservative group has been successful, and that is the
large number of GOP governors who have pursued
conservative policies of lower taxes, lower spending, fewer
regulations, and less government intrusion on individuals.
Their success stories are having impact in their states, but
somehow the national Republican party has not been able
to transform their state-level success into a national message.
Republicans, like Democrats, have supporters with a range
of views. Any political party, in order to be successful at the
polls, it goes without saying, needs to keep most of its base
of supporters voting for it at the polls. There is much to be
said also for the need to excite the core of the base at election
time. These two conditions, both necessary, sometimes are a
challenge to fulfill at the same time. But difficult or not, this
will be critically a requisite for Republican victory in 2014
and 2016. The tensions that now inhibit this will not likely go
away on their own. The basic political fact remains that almost
nothing is more important than having a strong candidate.
Weak candidates rarely win and excellent candidates do not
Republicans, it appears, already will be able to raise necessary
campaign cash and provide good campaign organizations.
But Republican leaders, activists and strategists who want to
take back the national government will have to come up with
more outstanding and widely appealing candidates in U.S.
senate races, and soon.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.