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The GOP's Senate Letdown

8:30 AM, Nov 7, 2012 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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What happened with the Senate? That’s one question Republicans are likely asking themselves after a disappointing Election Day. 

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The GOP needed to net just four Senate seats to gain control of the body, and Democrats (including Democratic-leaning independents) were defending 23 of the 33 seats up for election. Six of those were retiring Democratic senators, and four were first-term senators running in purple-to-red states. For a GOP desperate to dethrone Senate majority leader Harry Reid, 2012 was a ripe year.

Instead, Democrats will have actually made small gains in their Senate majority, and just one Republican, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, successfully took a seat away from the Democrats. It’s true, Republicans also retained several seats in red states like Utah, Tennessee, Arizona, and Texas, and Dean Heller of Nevada was able to hang on in a close race against Democrat Shelley Berkley.

But the GOP was unable to pick up three more winnable seats held by retiring Democrats. Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, the liberal Madison congresswoman, defeated Republican Tommy Thompson by 5 points and more than 100,000 votes. In a replay of 2006, when he lost to Jim Webb, Republican George Allen lost in Virginia to Democrat Tim Kaine by nearly 4 points. And in North Dakota, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp surprised many by running a strong campaign against Republican Rick Berg, and Heitkamp looks to have pulled off an exceedingly narrow victory of fewer than 3,000 votes.

And while Democrats had several seats held by endangered freshmen from swing or red states, none of the Republican challengers could pull off a win. In Montana, for instance, Jon Tester seems to have escaped a successful challenge from Republican congressman Denny Rehberg. And while Tom Smith of Pennsylvania gave incumbent Democrat Bob Casey a bit of a scare in the final weeks, Casey was able to win decisively.

One of the bigger disappointments for Republicans was in Missouri, where Claire McCaskill was perhaps the most vulnerable freshman Democratic senator. But Republican congressman Todd Akin’s disastrous remarks on abortion and rape destroyed the chance he had at beating McCaskill; she smoked him, 55 percent to 39 percent. 

There were even a few Republican seats that the party lost. In Maine, independent Angus King won a three-way race to succeed Republican Olympia Snowe, who earlier this year announced her retirement. King’s victory is something of an anomaly—he once served as Maine’s governor, also as an independent, and so he maintains a unique position in the state’s politics.

Nearby in Massachusetts, Scott Brown lost to Democrat Elizabeth Warren by about 230,000 votes. Brown, a moderate Republican who won special election in 2010, was in a difficult situation in liberal, Democratic Massachusetts. If John Kerry leaves the Senate to become Obama’s new secretary of State, Brown may be back to run in another special election.

Indiana’s Richard Mourdock was also plagued by impolitic comments regarding rape and abortion, and his loss to Democrat Joe Donnelly was all the more painful for the GOP since Mourdock defeated Dick Lugar in the primary. Lugar, a six-term senator with near universal popularity in Indiana, was on track to easily win a seventh term.

There were a few long shot seats that never materialized into winnable races, in Connecticut, Michigan, and Hawaii. Altogether, a slate of opportunities for the Republicans turned into a host of disappointments.

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