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How Republicans Could Blow It

How Republicans Could Blow It

By Bill Scher - October 20, 2014

There are two battlefields raging on the 2014 Senate map.

Most of the campaign this year has been fought on the “purple” state battlefield, covering territory that Democrats currently hold though much of it was Mitt Romney turf in 2012. The Republican Party offensive here is going according to plan. If current polling holds up on Election Day, the GOP will flip Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and West Virginia -- one more seat than the six Republicans need to take full control of Congress.

Why is the GOP strategy working? In most of these right-leaning states, there is an incumbent Democrat whom Republicans can brand as a rubber stamp for a president suffering low approval numbers. And Republican candidates have gone the extra mile to ditch strident right-wing rhetoric and present a moderate face.

But in the campaign’s home stretch, a “red” battlefield has emerged. It’s smaller: just Georgia, Kansas and South Dakota. Republicans forgot to play defense here, and now polling in all three states is volatile. If they let these states slip away, Republicans would only be able to take the Senate by coming from behind in one more “purple” state—New Hampshire or North Carolina—or if independent winners in Kansas and South Dakota decide to caucus in Washington with Republican senators.

You can understand why Republicans didn’t anticipate a “red” battlefield to protect. Georgia, Kansas, and South Dakota are perceived as so conservative that President Obama never competed in them. The first two have Senate seats already occupied by Republicans. While South Dakota’s seat is held by a retiring right-leaning Democrat, the Republican nominee was a two-term governor who left office with broad support, and the first-time Democratic candidate seeking to replace him, Rick Weiland, may be the most liberal of any 2014 challenger in the country.

So what happened? Each state has its own unique set of circumstances, but they speak to a discomfort with far right conservatism and distrust of incumbency.

In Kansas, opposition to deep tax cuts enacted by conservative Gov. Sam Brownback caused a rift within the state Republican Party, creating an opening for former Democrat-turned-independent candidate Greg Orman. After the Democratic nominee stepped aside, Orman built a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. And just as Republican challengers in the “purple” battlefield are blaming incumbent Democrats for the failures of Washington, Orman tags incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts with being “part of the problem.”

In South Dakota, another independent caught Republicans by surprise: former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler. Since leaving the Senate, he cast aside his party and voted twice for President Obama. Sometimes he sounds more liberal than some Democrats -- for example, supporting increased Social Security payouts and decrying the “military-industrial state.” Unlike in Kansas, the Democratic nominee is in striking distance and is not bowing out. Weiland has stayed in the mix with a populist crusade against “big money” and “huge corporate donors.”

Meanwhile, the Republican nominee -- the former, and formerly popular, Gov. Mike Rounds -- has been accused of complicity in a scandal involving alleged abuse of a program providing green cards to foreign investors. A cynical electorate appears disinclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Tea Party conservatives never cottoned to him, deeming the governor a “RINO” for accepting federal Recovery Act funds and refusing to sign a no-new-taxes pledge. But a second independent candidate, former state Sen. Gordon Howie, is only attracting upwards of 5 percent by running to Rounds’ right. The combined level of support in recent polls for the two left-leaning candidates, Pressler and Weiland, now clears 55 percent.

In Georgia, Republican nominee and former textile CEO David Perdue committed what may prove to be the biggest unforced error of the 2014 campaign. Earlier this month, a 2005 deposition surfaced in which he was asked about his experience outsourcing jobs.

 “Yeah,” he responded, “I spent most of my career doing that.” Compounding his political problem, instead of trying to distance himself from his past, he chose to embrace it as an example of his business know-how. Asked by a television reporter how he could defend the comment, Perdue replied on camera, “Defend it? I’m proud of it. This is a part of American business, part of any business. Outsourcing is the procurement of products and services to help your business run.”

Perdue instinctually displayed the conservative tendency of entrusting job creation solely to the wisdom of corporate chieftains and market forces. Bad move.

Michelle Nunn, his Democratic opponent, is taking full advantage, quickly cutting three separate advertisements excoriating the comments. Perdue’s strategy to defuse the attacks is to pin job losses on the federal government, saying in one recent ad: “Government can’t create jobs, but bad government policies sure can kill them.” So far, his defense hasn’t stopped the bleeding. Last month, Perdue led in nearly every poll. The two most recent polls have Nunn on top.

You might think that with so many Senate seats poised to switch from Democrat to Republican, that a Republican wave is building and the electorate is turning rightward. But other states that Republicans once dreamed they could carry with a strong wave -- Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon -- are being written off. Late in the campaign it’s the Democratic Party, with the help of left-leaning independents, which has opened up the second front.

How can we square the opposite trajectories of the two battlefields? Perhaps what we are seeing is not a rejection of Obama and his preferred policies, but revulsion towards incumbents of both parties who seem incapable of doing something to help the economy.

If antipathy for the president was the defining feature of 2014, then Sen. Roberts -- whose message is little more than he opposes Obama all the time and Orman wouldn’t -- would be having a much easier time.  Obstructing Obama is just as unpopular as voting with him, because both stoke fears of further gridlock and inaction.

The public cry is for the federal government to act. Voters may not be demanding  another New Deal, but turning to the government in times of need is not a conservative impulse. The thriving populism of South Dakota and the Perdue’s struggle to define “government” as a bigger enemy of jobs than himself, should make conservatives pause.

In 2010, Republicans threw away three Senate seats, and the opportunity to earn a 50-50 split, by passing over electable options in favor of fringe candidates like Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell. In 2012, they wasted another two by choosing candidates who campaigned on banning abortion even in cases of rape.

This time around, Republicans appeared to avoid similar snafus: Even their more conservative candidates have restrained their rhetoric and muffled controversial stances for general election purposes. And yet, they may blow another three races that should have been layups.  

Republicans may have succeeded in dragging down Democrats and putting the Senate within their reach by denying Obama legislative victories and resisting compromise. But the damage they did to themselves in the process may ultimately leave them empty-handed. Again.

Bill Scher is executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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