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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.

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