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The Ones that Got Away

Three Senate seats the GOP coulda shoulda won, but didn't.

12:07 PM, Nov 5, 2010 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Republicans scored smashing victories in the House on Tuesday night, but their six Senate pick-ups--while matching the Democrats 2006 haul--left many in the GOP disappointed. Politico's Jonathan Martin and Manu Raju capture the inevitable round of recriminations over GOP losses in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado:

“Candidates matter,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “It was a good night for Republicans but it could have been a better one. We left some on the table.” 

Referring to the debate within the right about whether the party was better off losing the Delaware seat than winning with a moderate Republican like Rep. Mike Castle, who lost the GOP primary to Christine O’Donnell, Graham was even more blunt. 

“If you think what happened in Delaware is ‘a win’ for the Republican Party then we don’t have a snowball’s chance to win the White House,” he said. “If you think Delaware was a wake-up call for Republicans than we have shot at doing well for a long time.” 

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott put it plainly: “We did not nominate our strongest candidates.” 

Had Republicans run Castle in Delaware and establishment favorites Sue Lowden in Nevada and Jane Norton in Colorado, Lott said, Tuesday would have turned out different.

“With those three we would have won and been sitting at 50 [senators],” he observed.

Another high-profile senator went even further, placing the blame for the Senate GOP’s failure squarely at the feet of Graham’s South Carolina colleague, DeMint. 

It's worth considering whether or not different candidates could have won these states, but blaming DeMint for the losses doesn't make much sense. Consider each of the three states: 

Nevada: Sharron Angle beat Sue Lowden 40% to 26% in June 8 primary, with Danny Tarkanian coming in third. As Erick Erickson points out, Jim DeMint did not make an endorsement prior to the primary. Neither did Sarah Palin for that matter. The national groups that financially backed Angle were the Tea Party Express, which endorsed Angle in the middle of April, and the Club for Growth, which came out for Angle on May 19. Mark Levin formally endorsed Angle on May 21, saying there was "really only one solid conservative" in the Nevada Senate race. "I heard the same thing about Reagan," he said about concerns about Angle's electability.  

In defense of the Angle supporters, and as I noted five days before the primary, while Lowden and Tarkanian polled better than Angle did against Reid, they had their own problems. It wasn't and isn't apparent that they would have scored easy victories (though, in hindsight, I think either Tarkanian or Lowden could have eked out a win). When primary day came around, Lowden actually seemed more gaffe-prone than Angle, but probably a better fit ideologically for the state than Angle.

The bottom line: If you're looking for a scapegoat over the Nevada loss, DeMint isn't your man. 

Delaware: DeMint endorsed Christine O'Donnell on the Friday night prior to the primary--the day after Sarah Palin endorsed O'Donnell and the same time the NRA endorsed her. Again, the Tea Party Express got the ball rolling in this race with an endorsement of O'Donnell in July. Feel free to question the wisdom of endorsing O'Donnell in light of the odd and false claims she made, but DeMint's endorsement probably wasn't decisive. With or without DeMint, the energy that Palin and conservative talk radio and cable TV hosts put behind O'Donnell was probably enough to put her over the top. You could also blame Castle for not campaigning on issues that appeal to conservatives, such as opposition to Obamacare.

Colorado: DeMint's endorsement of Ken Buck over Jane Norton probably made the difference in Colorado's primary (Buck beat Norton 51% to 49%). 

Colorado was arguably the most bitter defeat for Republicans on Tuesday: Democratic senator Michael Bennet beat Ken Buck by about 15,000 votes out of nearly 1.6 million votes cast. It's such a small margin that it's easy to imagine that if any number of small things had gone differently, Buck might have won.

What if the Colorado Democratic machine hadn't trumped up the false claim that Buck failed to prosecute a confessed rapist?

What if Buck hadn't compared homosexuality to alcoholism on Meet the Press?

What if Buck had gone after Bennet for raiding Medicare to pay for a new entitlement, rather than criticize Republicans for attacking Obamacare's Medicare cuts? 

Early Buck supporter Erick Erickson points the finger back at the NRSC, writing that "the NRSC did not fund a ground game operation, nor did the RNC. They either left it to Karl Rove or Haley Barbour." A Republican source tells me that the RNC typically funds get out the vote operations, but because their finances suffered this year, "the NRSC directly transferred $500,000 to the Colorado GOP and also transferred another $73,000 from our Target State joint victory fund. This was a fund set-up to raise even more GOTV funds when the RNC’s finance problems became increasingly apparent. All of this money was used to fund mail, phones, and other GOTV activities, and it was in addition to the over $6 million the NRSC spent on TV.  Similar situation in Nevada for example where the NRSC spent roughly $700,000 just for GOTV."

The final PPP poll that showed Buck leading Bennet 49% to 48% also showed Jane Norton leading Bennet 47% to 43% in a hypothetical matchup. Norton had the advantages over Buck of having already served in a statewide office (lieutenant governor), being able to appeal more to women voters (whom Buck lost badly), and being a somewhat better fit for the state ideologically--she opposes abortion, but not in the case of rape. But is the PPP poll proof Norton would have won? Not necessarily. There's no way to know if Norton would have withstood Democratic attacks better than Buck did, but there's a case to be made that she would have.

As Philip Klein notes, Republican losses in close Senate races make it more difficult to get the votes needed to repeal Obamacare. Looking forward, if repealing Obamacare is a priority, conservatives ought to consider whether they're willing to tolerate Senate candidates who are more likely to win but not 100 percent pure. Looking back, it's not entirely clear that Norton would have won in Colorado, and DeMint didn't endorse Angle in Nevada. And of course, if the South Carolina senator deserves any blame for Delaware, then he also deserves credit for supporting conservatives like Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey early on, when the NRSC was backing Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter.

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