Why Republicans failed to take back the Senate

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.