Why Republicans failed to take back the Senate

Alexis Levinson | Political Reporter

One year ago today, Republicans were on the cusp of taking back the Senate. Of all the seats coming up for grabs in 2012, most were held by retiring or vulnerable Democrats, leaving only a small sliver were held by Republicans.

“Virtually all of the vulnerability is on the Democratic side this cycle,” one Republican Insider told National Journal in the September 2011 insider poll. “Of 10 to 12 competitive races, two are GOP seats, and we only need to pick up four.”

But by the early hours of Wednesday morning, the day after election day, even as Senate races dragged on in Montana, Nevada and North Dakota, it was clear that Republicans had failed to take back the Senate.

So what happened?

Many fingers are pointing at two Republican Senate candidates in particular: Missouri Rep. Todd Akin and Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, both of whom made particularly tin-eared comments when explaining their opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape.

Those comments are largely credited with the GOP’s failure to pick up Missouri, which seemed to be “set up perfectly” for a Republican win, as one Republican insider put it to National Journal, and forfeiting Indiana, a state that wasn’t supposed to be on the table in the first place.

“Republicans made the same mistakes they made two years ago,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, a Republican strategist.

Republicans had “some good candidates … but too many mistakes who failed not because of their philosophy, but because they can’t articulate that philosophy or sell persuadable voters on it,” he said.

Republican strategist Rick Galen described the remarks as “disastrously game-changing.”

“I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but I have to believe that any other candidate, be it Dick Lugar, or whoever was running against Akin in Missouri would be celebrating being re-elected or being sent to the United States Senate,” Galen said.

The rape comments did not just hurt the candidates who said them. To a lesser degree, they were also damaging for other Republican Senate candidates like Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who lost his seat Tuesday to Elizabeth Warren.

Brown ran as a likable guy and a moderate — he was the first Republican to call for Akin to resign the nomination after his “legitimate rape” comment. But Akin’s comment gave Warren an opening to make the race not about whether voters liked her or Brown more, but about the party that each would potentially give a majority to. In Brown’s case, that party included Akin and Mourdock.

Republican strategist Trey Hardin, however, placed the blame on the GOP’s Election Day debacle elsewhere.

“One name: Olympia Snowe. Her leaving made the Republican Senate candidates look bad,” he said.

Republicans did get a curveball last spring when, citing the intense partisanship in Congress, the moderate Maine Senator announced that she would be retiring after her term in office ended. Her replacement in the Senate, independent former Gov. Angus King, is widely expected to caucus with Democrats.

But the blame cannot be placed on a select few people, Galen cautioned, noting that each race had its own idiosyncrasies.

In some states, he noted, the Obama team’s ground game helped “some people over the line.” He pointed to Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin’s new Democratic senator.

In Ohio, the Republican candidate Josh Mandel was a tea party favorite. He was also a young, inexperienced politician going up against “a very wily veteran senator in Sherrod Brown,” who “knows how to campaign and knows how to campaign hard.”

In Virginia, David Shepherd, a Republican Virginia blogger, said that Obama’s victory in the state helped Democrat Tim Kaine prevail over former GOP Sen. George Allen.

“Allen really was tied to Romney,” he said.

However, Allen also struggled in northern parts of the state, which have become increasingly Democratic in recent years.

“As much as I love George, I think he is done,” Shepherd said. “He just doesn’t play well enough in Northern Virginia.”

Across the board, Republicans nominated “flawed candidates” who simply weren’t as popular as the Democrat they were running against, according to Democratic strategist Ed Peavy. This gave Democrats an advantage in states where they would otherwise be more vulnerable.

He pointed to North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp as an example. Heitkamp leads Republican Rep. Rick Berg by just under 4,000 votes with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The race has not been officially called for either candidate, and Berg has announced he will not concede until all of the votes have been canvassed to ensure a fair tally.

“Heitkamp was very popular and had very good numbers for anyone — particularly a Democrat in North Dakota. And Berg didn’t. Berg had really bad numbers from the start,” Peavy said.

Coupled with Romney’s defeat, Republicans appear to be entering a period of soul-searching.

Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, put out a statement congratulating Republicans who did win while acknowledging that Tuesday was a bad night for the party.

“[I]t’s clear that with our losses in the Presidential race, and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party,” Cornyn said. “While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight. Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead.”

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