Heading into the 2012 election cycle Republicans were optimistic about their chances of taking the Senate and holding the House. While polls show the GOP well situated to hold the House by a substantial majority the evidence is less clear in the Senate. Republican strategists privately concede that due to a lackluster recruiting effort their chances of retaking the Senate are little better than 50/50.
First consider the math. Heading into 2012 Democrats have to defend 23 Senate seats, many in conservative or swing states to the GOP’s ten. Top Democratic targets were initially limited to two seats, NV and MA, though Olympia Snowe’s (R-ME) has complicated matters for the GOP as Independent Governor Angus King is heavily favored to take the seat (likely to caucus with Democrats). By contrast for the GOP the sky looked to be the limit. Before the cycle was far removed from the 2010 elections the GOP planned to not just target Missouri, Nebraska, Montana and North Dakota but Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Some of these races have panned out, others have not.
Consider Ohio. The GOP quickly lined up behind newly elected State Treasurer Josh Mandel. Mandel has proven adept at fundraising but is barely 33 and comes off as awkward at times. His opponent, Senator Sherrod Brown, is far more liberal than Ohio but is adept at populist appeals. He also can fundraise and has an appeal to the average Joe the younger Mandel cannot match. Despite a steady barrage of attack ads aimed at Brown from outside groups polls show Brown ahead of Mandel. The caveat is that Mandel is still not well-known to voters in the state. But his boy-wonder status has faded within the party as his campaign has yet to catch fire.
Look at Pennsylvania. Freshman Senator Bob Casey Jr. is slightly to the left of the state. He voted for Obamacare and Financial Reform. He also stated he would have backed Cap and Trade legislation if it had gotten to the Senate floor. Republicans were unable to find a solid candidate after Representatives Meehan and Jim Gerlach opted out of the race. In a major embarrassment for the party their preferred candidate lost badly to businessman Tom Smith in the primary. Smith’s saving grace is that he has the ability to self-fund his campaign and perhaps make himself relevant by November.
North Dakota was supposed to be a walk-over for the GOP after Senator Kent Conrad announced he was retiring. The GOP, like in Ohio, quickly lined up behind freshman Rep. Rick Berg. Democrats picked a former popular state Attorney General, Heidi Heitkamp. Polls how shown the race surprisingly close, far closer than the GOP expected. Berg’s unfavorable ratings are far higher than Hetikamp’s likely keeping her in the game. The state has a decidedly Republican lean at the presidential level but keep in mind until 2010 the state had two Democratic Senators and a Democratic Rep. North Dakotans have shown a willingness in the past to buck partisan voting. Still it is unlikely the GOP will lose the state. Outside groups will spend heavily on Berg and Democrats do not have the cash to spend to save Heitkamp. Still, that is resources the GOP and third-party groups have to devote to yet another race they did not expect to.
Even in races where the GOP should be heavily favored, Montana, Florida, Missouri and Nebraska the party has struggled. In Florida polling has shown Rep. Connie Mack jumping ahead of the Republican field to face Senator Ben Nelson. However, even though Nelson backed the Stimulus, Obamacare, Financial Reform and other liberal legislation Mack has been unable to move his polling numbers ahead of Nelson. Worse for Mack is his fundraising is anemic and the state is extremely expensive to advertise in. Nelson on the other hand has plenty of cash.
In Montana the GOP lined up behind Rep. Denny Rehburg. Elected to the state’s sole Congressional district multiple times he is well-known to the state’s voters. Yet he has been unable to move meaningfully ahead of Senator Jon Tester. Both have a folksy and appealing style to their campaigns but Tester is definitely to the left of his state on national issues. Yet Rehburg has been unable to take advantage. In Missouri the GOP has a less than stellar cast of candidates, businessman John Brunner, Rep. Todd Akin and perennial candidate Sarah Steelman. None have overwhelmed and state Republicans are torn between the better known Akin and self-funder Brunner. Still, McCaskill, for all her appeal, is out of step with the state ideologically and likely gone in November. In Nebraska the GOP’s preferred candidate lost to a young upstart state senator, Deb Fischer, yet she appears likely to cruise to victory.
This is not to say the GOP has failed in recruiting any good candidates. In New Mexico the GOP recruited former moderate Congresswoman Heather Wilson. In Hawaii the GOP got former two term Governor Linda Lingle. Both of these candidates are strong fundraisers, have appeal and can put these two Democratic leaning states on the map. Yet in a presidential year they will have a lot of challenges to overcome to win in November. In Virginia the GOP got former Senator and Governor George Allen yet he appears to have so far met his match in former Governor Tim Kaine. In Wisconsin the GOP is hoping former 4 term Governor Tommy Thompson comes out of a four-way primary. Yet he could be pushed out from the right and if so it is a toss-up between the more conservative candidate vs. liberal Madison Congressman Tammy Baldwin.
Compared to the GOP’s 2010 winners many of today’s GOP candidates seem lacking. The 2010 GOP field featured the likes of Rob Portman (OH), Ron Johnson (WI), John Boozeman (AR), Mark Kirk (IL), John Hoeven (ND) and Pat Toomey (PA). All these candidates seemed to have attributes the current GOP field is lacking.
Still, it is possible that many analysts, myself included, could be looking at the GOP’s 2010 field with rose-covered glasses. Afterall, the GOP with the help of the Tea Party picked nominees in CO, NV and DE that eventually cost them winnable seats. And the wave election of 2010 could have helped edge out the rough spots of many of the GOP’s winners, especially Pat Toomey.
So yes it seems Republicans should be concerned but not start crying the Senate is out of reach. In many races Democratic incumbents are below 50% and the GOP’s nominees, or preferred candidate, are unknown to many voters in their states. This leaves room for them to grow and expand their support. For those candidates like Allen and Rehburg, well-known in their states, they are even or slightly ahead of their foes.
For the GOP however this has to be a let-down. Especially after expectations were high after 2010. It now looks more likely than ever that if the GOP does gain the majority in the Senate, they will do so by no more than one or two seats at the most. A far cry from what they had hoped heading into 2012.