Yesterday’s announcement that Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson will not seek re-election next year was a stunning blow to a Democratic Party that had already been facing an uphill battle to retain their narrow majority in the upper house. Nelson is the seventh Democrat to retire in 2012. And as is the case with seats in Virginian, North Dakota and Wisconsin, Nelson’s exit creates another opportunity for a Republican gain. It’s arguable that Nelson would likely have lost next year anyway as a consequence of his vote for Obamacare, but the incumbent’s withdrawal now moves the seat from a “leans GOP” to “likely GOP” in any analysis of the coming battle for the Senate next November.
But the main point to be gleaned from this news is not just that the odds of Mitch McConnell assuming the post of Senate Majority Leader in January 2013 have increased. Rather, it is to point out to Republicans that despite their well-publicized dissatisfaction with their choices for president, with an unpopular incumbent president presiding over a sinking economy, the stage is still set for a big GOP triumph in 2012. Provided that is, they don’t nominate a presidential candidate who will not only allow Obama to be re-elected but sink the Republican opportunity to regain majorities in both the House and Senate.
To conservatives who scoff at the notion that electing Republicans ought to be a higher priority over choosing solid conservatives rather than moderates, it should be pointed out that the alternative–Democratic control of Congress–would be a disaster for their movement. Obamacare was made possible not just by the election of a Democrat to the White House but his carrying along majorities in both the House and the Senate. Repeal of that measure will not happen unless Obama is defeated while Republicans retain the House and seize the Senate.
Keeping that goal in mind does not mean that conservatives must acquiesce to the nomination of any candidate with an R after their name, even if he is an incumbent. Tea Party favorites like Marco Rubio won races against Democrats after beating moderates. But it means that the GOP must guard against throwing away certain victories, as in Nevada with Sharon Angle and in Delaware with Christine O’Donnell. And, yes, it also means nominating a candidate for president who can not only win but also, at the very least, not act as a drag on the rest of the ticket.