Commentary Magazine


A GOP Senate? Don’t Bet Against It.

There has been a lot of triumphalism heard lately on the left—and even from some on the right—about Republicans allowing extremists to hijack their party and thereby dooming them to permanent minority status. The GOP has its problems and may ultimately rue the decision of so many House conservatives to put their heads in the sand about immigration and the impact their stand will have on Hispanics. But that controversy won’t stop them from taking the Senate next year if they manage to put together a slate of electable candidates in the midterm elections. The decision of Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, to pass on a Senate run is a body blow to Democrats hoping to hold onto the seat being vacated by Max Baucus in 2014. But what really ought to worry them is the fact that their party’s lucky charm in 2012 is officially labeling their chances of holding onto control of the Senate as less than likely. New York Times blogger and liberal pundit Nate Silver writes today to handicap the race for the Senate, and what he has to say should send a chill down the spines of Democrats:

A race-by-race analysis of the Senate, in fact, suggests that Republicans might now be close to even-money to win control of the chamber after next year’s elections. Our best guess, after assigning probabilities of the likelihood of a G.O.P. pickup in each state, is that Republicans will end up with somewhere between 50 and 51 Senate seats after 2014, putting them right on the threshold of a majority.

Considering that Silver’s prognostications proved to be perfect in the 2012 presidential election, that’s the sort of prediction that might leave some Democrats wondering about the wisdom of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to employ the so-called “nuclear option” that diminishes the power of the minority in the Senate.

As Silver breaks down the 2014 Senate races, it’s clear that Democrats are in trouble. Democrats will (after they win back the seat they lost in New Jersey when Frank Lautenberg died this October) be defending 21 seats next year while Republicans will only have 14 seats. That’s already a disadvantage, but that becomes even worse when you realize that none of those GOP incumbents face anything close to a formidable challenge. On the other hand, three of those Democratic seats are rated by Silver as either safe or likely GOP pickups: Montana (Baucus), West Virginia and South Dakota (where Jay Rockefeller and Tim Johnson are retiring). Add those three to the existing total of 45 Republican seats (again, discounting the New Jersey seat temporarily held by Jeffrey Chiesa) and you bring the GOP total to 48.

Silver also rates three other Democrats, North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor as tossups at best in their reelection efforts. Throw in Alaska’s Mark Begich, who currently leads his potential opponents in the polls but must still cope with the difficulty of running in a deep red state, and you have an easy path for the GOP to 50, 51 or even 52 seats. Silver goes further to postulate that if 2014 turns out to be a good year for Republicans, a not unreasonable scenario for a midterm election during the sixth year of a Democratic president’s administration, the total of GOP pickups could go as high as nine as states like Michigan and Iowa, where incumbents are retiring, might fall prey to a downward trend for President Obama’s party.

The point here is that Democrats have almost no chance of picking up any seats in 2014 and a good chance of losing some. The question is how many, and Silver rightly points out that total will be defined as much by Republican primary voters as it is by the economy or any other issue or external factor.

The most obvious example of this may be in Alaska, a state that Democrats have no business winning except if they are faced with a GOP nominee who is terribly unpopular, as is the case with 2010 Senate candidate Joe Miller or former Governor Sarah Palin. But it could also make the difference in more than half a dozen states where opportunities exist in 2014. If Republicans wind up putting forward implausible figures such as Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle (whose nominations transformed winnable GOP pickups into easy Democratic wins in 2010) or candidates who make astoundingly stupid gaffes like Todd Akin (who gift-wrapped Claire McCaskill’s reelection in a year where few thought she had a chance of surviving), then they’ll wind up tilting Silver’s evaluations back in the direction of the Democrats.

It’s true that seemingly safe establishment candidates can also fail, as was the case last year when drab GOP nominees wound up being dragged down in a Democratic year. But if, as was the case in 2010, Republicans are on the upswing next year as Americans grow tired of President Obama, ObamaCare and the assorted scandals attached to the administration, the need to avoid nominating politicians who are easily marginalized will be greater than ever.

For all of their problems, divisions and flaws, Republicans are in position to be in sole control of Congress in January 2015. That should chasten Democrats who foolishly think the 2012 results will be endlessly repeated in future elections and grass roots Republicans who should remember that it was their folly that has kept Harry Reid in the majority leader’s seat.

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