Democrats are waiting. They’re waiting to see if Paul Broun is the Republican nominee for the Senate in Georgia. They’re waiting to see if challenger Matt Bevin and the Senate Conservatives Fund lacerate Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell sufficiently in Kentucky’s Republican primary to make him vulnerable in the general election against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. They’re waiting to see if Republicans nominate beatable Senate candidates in Alaska, North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Colorado.
They’re waiting because they’ve all but given up on holding the Senate in the November midterm elections on their own. Their candidates—especially the four incumbents in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012—are too compromised by their ties to President Obama and their votes for Obamacare. To retain the Senate, Democrats require the help of Republican primary voters. And they may get it.
The GOP is likely to gain four or five Senate seats just for the asking, the political environment being so poisonous for Democrats. But that would leave the Senate in Democratic majority leader Harry Reid’s hands. Republicans must net at least six seats to take control of the Senate. But they can’t manage this if they give away winnable seats.
Take Georgia. Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former senator Sam Nunn, “is proving to be perhaps the best Democratic challenger of the cycle,” Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report wrote last week. But it’s not as if Nunn is campaigning aggressively. She is biding her time, talking up bipartisanship and how she worked with President George W. Bush on volunteerism.
Winning in Georgia, a red state, is difficult for Democrats. Nunn wouldn’t have a chance—and probably wouldn’t be a candidate—if Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss were running for reelection. But he’s retiring, creating an open seat. To win, Nunn must avoid becoming the issue. Her GOP opponent must be. That’s why Democrats are praying that Broun or his House colleague Phil Gingrey wins the Republican nomination—especially Broun. He’s given to exotic statements the media like to feast on. And without a Republican opponent who makes himself the issue, Nunn is toast. GOP primary voters should keep this in mind. Either secretary of state Karen Handel or congressman Jack Kingston would be a tough Republican for Nunn to beat.
Or take Kentucky. The impatient wing of the Republican right has an outsized dislike of McConnell, as if he (rather than Reid or President Obama) were the problem in Washington. True, he’s no Ted Cruz. McConnell is a cautious leader, skeptical of rash steps by Republicans so long as Democrats control the Senate, the White House, and the media. He opposes shutting down the government and threatening to block an increase in the debt limit since both hurt the Republican cause.
In a pinch, however, McConnell is invariably summoned to bail out Republicans. And here he’s a master of the inside game. He negotiated the two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010 (despite a new president who’d campaigned on raising taxes) and the fiscal cliff deal that made those tax cuts permanent for everyone earning less than $400,000. And he’s responsible for the Budget Control Act of 2011 that included the sequester and actually cut spending.
Yet some Republicans are willing to sacrifice McConnell to the gods of zealotry, even if that means losing a Republican seat and jeopardizing the prospects for capturing the Senate. Nearly $2 million has been spent, most of it by the Senate Conservatives Fund, to malign McConnell. And instead of electing a marginally more conservative Republican like Bevin, the more likely outcome is giving up the seat to a Democrat.
Losing GOP seats in Georgia and Kentucky might not prevent Republicans from grabbing the Senate. But it would surely reduce the odds that now favor a GOP takeover. Why take that risk? Bitter primaries with months of name-calling are loved by the press. But they don’t help the candidate who wins the nomination—quite the contrary.
State senator Owen Hill, running for the Republican Senate nomination in Colorado, set a gracious example when congressman Cory Gardner entered the race a month ago. Hill was understandably unhappy with the deal between Gardner and then-Senate candidate Ken Buck, who switched to seek Gardner’s House seat. But Hill bowed to reality.
“Gardner has the best chance of defeating [Democratic incumbent] Mark Udall in November, and I pray he does,” Hill said in dropping out. Polls show Gardner in a tie with Udall.
Lesser GOP candidates in races against other Democratic senators should ponder Hill’s move. Would a primary fist fight in New Hampshire focused on small ideological differences help the likely nominee, ex-Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, defeat Democratic senator Jeanne Shaheen? Hardly. The same is true in Louisiana, where Representative Bill Cassidy leads Democratic senator Mary Landrieu in polls, but still faces a primary foe, Rob Maness, backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum “First you win the argument, then you win the vote” is quoted by Republicans who back candidates more vocally conservative than the likely nominee. Her rule might have applied when conservatives were running against liberal Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s. It doesn’t any more.
The argument has been won. The gamut of Republican incumbents and candidates for Congress now runs from quite conservative to very conservative. They believe in smaller government, less spending, fewer regulations, strong defense . . . you know the rest. Yes, there are a few exceptions. But Mitch McConnell isn’t one of them.