In both 2010 and 2012, Republicans threw away golden opportunities to take control of the Senate by nominating outlier candidates that turned likely victories into defeats. The most prominent examples, such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Nevada’s Sharron Angle, and Missouri’s Todd Akin, illustrated not only how gaffe-ridden politicians could transform unpopular Democratic incumbents into winners but also the profound lack of seriousness on the part of many in the GOP. This kept Harry Reid in office (thanks to Angle) and in charge of the Senate. But it appears that not only have the issues and President Obama’s job performance put the Democrats in a tough position heading into the midterms, but that this year Republicans are behaving as if they are more interested in winning than in ideological purity or pursuing grudges.
The best example of this comes from Colorado where Democrat Mark Udall is up for reelection to his Senate seat. Udall, who was swept in on Obama’s coattails in the 2008 “hope and change” wave, was not thought to be among the most vulnerable Democrats this year. Demographic changes have transformed Colorado into a purple or light blue state in presidential elections. But it is still highly competitive with strong conservative tendencies, especially on issues like gun control, as two Democratic state senators discovered last fall when they were recalled after passing more stringent gun legislation. Udall is a liberal who says he does not regret his vote for ObamaCare and, unlike most Democrats running for reelection, would welcome campaign help from the president. But his ace in the hole this year was a divided Republican party.
The Colorado GOP looked to be ready to tear itself apart again this year with a crowded primary that many expected 2010 Senate nominee and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck—who lost what many felt was a winnable race to Michael Bennet—to win. But, as Politico reports, in a surprising development Buck and two other Republicans pulled out of the race in the last month to clear the field for Rep. Cory Gardner, the man that national Republicans wanted as the nominee. While Gardner won’t have an easy time against Udall, these developments will not only help Republicans in a race that is now considered a tossup; it may be a signal that the GOP, including its Tea Party faction, is playing to win in 2014.
Udall is hoping that he can do to Gardner what Bennet did to Buck in 2010 and define a man who is not that well known statewide as an extremist. The success of this familiar Democratic strategy depends on tarring the GOP standard-bearer as a foe of women in an effort to distract the public from Obama’s woes and ObamaCare. Gardner is a social conservative, but he has moderated his views on abortion enough to survive the attack provided he doesn’t hand Udall any Akin-style moronic quotes about rape that will sink him. But with a united party behind him and enough money at his disposal, Gardner has an even chance of knocking off Udall. At the very least, he will force Democrats to spend heavily to defend a seat they thought was not in as much danger as some of their seats in red states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska.
But the point here is that rather than make a suicidal run at Gardner, Buck cut a deal with him and is now running for the congressional seat that he is vacating. The same was true of the other Republicans who decided that the smart thing to do was to let the strongest candidate have an easy path to November. Tea Partiers who railed last year at establishment types like Karl Rove for wanting winnable Senate candidates may now be listening to reason. Gardner and other Republicans must still prove that they have the campaign discipline that will help them fend off the faux “war on women” smears Democrats will hurl at them and stick to the economy and ObamaCare. If they do, Harry Reid won’t be the majority leader next January.