The GOP Beat Off Tea Partiers — But Can They Win The Senate?

Dan Sullivan, candidate for the Reublican nomination for election to the U.S. Senate, leaves the voting booth after marking his ballot in Alaska's primary election in Anchorage, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
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With last night’s Alaska primary, the much-heralded Republican Senate primary cycle came to a close (unless someone to Bill Cassidy’s right upsets him in Louisiana’s “jungle primary” on November 4). And with the victory of every Beltway Republican’s favorite to take on Mark Begich, former Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan (pictured), the GOP can congratulate itself on failing to nominate any blatantly self-destructive yahoos for competitive seats, and for not making any safe seats suddenly vulnerable — though that very nearly happened in Mississippi.

But if there are no Christine O’Donnells or Todd Akins on the general election ballot, it’s not clear yet Republicans are going to take control of the Senate. Yes, Montana, South Dakota and probably West Virginia appear to be in the bag unless something surprising happens; the two vulnerable GOP seats in Kentucky and Georgia look a mite safer lately; and you’d have to figure that among Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan and North Carolina, winning three is not much of a stretch in a midterm election with the president’s approval ratings low and the economy still troubled if improving. (Republicans once dreamed of winning in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Oregon, but that ain’t happening).

Yet there are no signs of a Republican “wave” election; most of the positive trajectory remain attributable to a lucky Senate landscape this particular cycle and to the turnout advantages the older and whiter GOP automatically enjoys in midterms these days. So the assumption many Republicans seem to have that they’ll get all the “late breaks” in close races isn’t really warranted at this point. Nor is the much-discussed “enthusiasm gap” a reliable indicator. As Republican pollster Neil Newhouse warned recently (per the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza), the same “gap” existed in 2012:

“The enthusiasm gap was taken to the woodshed by the Obama team’s [get out the vote] efforts,” writes Newhouse. “In a nutshell, the Democrats turned out voters who were ‘unenthusiastic,’ ‘unexcited’ and not ‘energized’ to vote, rendering the ‘enthusiasm gap’ meaningless.”

We don’t know yet whether the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s “Bannock Street Project” — a heavy investment in turning the Obama ‘12 campaign’s voter targeting and mobilization techniques into a disruption of past midterm turnout patterns — is going to pay off. The impression I get, however, is that it’s a deadly serious enterprise, and potentially crucial in, for example, Arkansas, where African-American turnout has been abnormally low in recent elections. We also don’t know if Republican “independent” groups are going to be as feckless as they generally were in 2012 in spending their considerable resources.

Beyond that, there are obviously idiosyncrasies in individual contests that are difficult to predict but could change everything. North Carolina’s Thom Tillis is uniquely tied to a deeply unpopular state legislature that’s generated as many negative headlines in the state as Congress. Both he and Joni Ernst took dangerously extremist positions in the course of winning their primaries. Tom Cotton didn’t even need a primary to create ideological peril for himself. Ernst and Georgia’s David Perdue have been gaffe-prone. Mitch McConnell, never a beloved figure at home, is a highly visible officer in a despised congressional status quo. Cory Gardner is the rare Republican Senate candidate for whom a strong Latino backlash against the recent upsurge in GOP nativist sentiment could prove a catastrophe.

On the Democratic side, Mary Landrieu has already in her career accomplished something thought near-impossible for a Democrat by winning a post-general-election runoff. And Mark Pryor’s reservoirs of support are such that he didn’t even draw a Republican opponent last time he ran.

So while Republicans can rightly be pleased that they avoided disaster during the Senate primary cycle, it’s far too early for gloating. And if the imponderables between now and November 4 aren’t sobering enough, they can look ahead to the 2016 Senate elections, when the landscape shifts sharply in the opposite direction and a far less favorable presidential electorate shows up at the polls.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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