Dethroning a warped, frustrated old man: Senate battle ’14

Cliff Smith Attorney
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In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Mr. Potter — a “warped, frustrated old man,” as his nemesis George Bailey called him, taunts George with utter ruin. George and his Building and Loan business has been struggling against Potter’s monopolistic grasp on power in town for decades. George has managed to just barely survive, driving Potter crazy, but he’s constantly being beaten into a corner. Now, Potter is convinced that George, beset with scandal of Potter’s making, will finally collapse, leaving him to run the town alone. But George and his friends have a better hand than Mr. Potter realizes. It’s Potter who is really facing ruin.

In our modern political drama, our Mr. Potter is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid has been Majority leader for eight years, the longest run since Mike Mansfield’s which ended in the mid 70’s. Reid has ruled with an iron fist, going as far as to twist the rules of the Senate to confirm Obama’s nominees, obstruct efforts to pass a budget, and otherwise force his agenda through at all costs.

Yet while his power has been vast, he hasn’t always gotten his way. His attacks on the “obstruction” of Republican “anarchists” have become harsher and harsher. His tactics and threats to twist the rules, such as his his condoning of President Obama’s “recess” appointments made when the Senate is not in recess, seem to be made under the assumption that he’ll be Majority Leader as long as he likes.

Many pundits, both partisan Democrats and pessimistic Republicans, seem to believe him. They seem to think Republicans have blown elections in the last two cycles, and are unlikely to dethrone Reid.

Let’s start by giving these pundits their due: Republicans blew elections in the last two cycles they should have won. Yet, Republicans lost by underperforming in states that were already difficult for them in recent years, namely Nevada, Colorado, Washington, and Delaware in 2010, and Wisconsin and Virginia in 2012. True, they lost in more friendly territory in Montana and North Dakota in 2012, but these states have a long history of electing Democrats to federal office, even while going Republican for President.

The landscape in 2014 looks quite different. Republicans can gain up to seven Senate seats just winning races in states where Mitt Romney won. This is a huge advantage.

Republicans are nearly assured two pickups and probably three. In South Dakota, former Governor Mike Rounds is running for an open seat being vacated by longtime Democrat Tim Johnson. Rounds doesn’t have a credible opponent and would be the overwhelming favorite anyway. In West Virginia, popular longtime Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is running for an open seat against mediocre opposition. She’s leading by over 20 points in the polls. In Montana, Rep. Steve Daines, is running and the Democrats’ A-list candidate, former Governor Brian Schweitzer, declined to run.

Democrats are also whistling past the graveyard if they don’t think they are in for it in Arkansas and Louisiana. Mitt Romney won both states by over 20 percent. Supporters of Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) insist he’ll be difficult to dislodge. But Pryor has dug in with his support of Obamacare just as the wheels are coming off. Pryor’s approval is in the high 30’s and his opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, a war hero, Harvard Law Grad, and a fundraising machine, already leads him in the polls. These are clear signs that Pryor will not only lose, but lose badly.

The Louisiana Democratic Party has been completely and utterly destroyed as a governing force by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal. They now control no statewide offices, neither house of the state legislature, and only one Congressional seat. Sen. Mary Landrieu is the last Democrat standing. She survived difficult elections in 2008, 2002 and 1996, but she never won more than 52 percent of the vote, running against weak opponents in bad years for Republicans.  This year will not only likely be a good year for Republicans, being a second mid-term under a Democratic president, but she has a very credible opponent in Rep. Bill Cassidy. She’s never run against opponents that have held federal office. Cassidy has connections to national fundraising and influence, and isn’t beset with baggage the way her last three opponents have been. Landrieu’s only hope is to get massive turnout in New Orleans, suppress turnout, and cut her margins in the rest of the state. She is in deep trouble.

So we have five races where Republicans are favored to pick up seats. This leaves them only to hold their own seats, and pick up one more. This is difficult, but the evidence is in their favor

Only two Republican seats are seriously considered competitive. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not particularly popular in his home state of Kentucky. But he’s powerful, can raise virtually unlimited amounts of money, and is running in a state that voted against Obama by over 20 percent both times. He might not win by a landslide, but it is difficult to see him losing.

Georgia is seen as competitive because Obama lost it by single digits with high African-American turnout. The Democrats only hope is that the wrong candidate comes out of a wild Republican primary in Georgia and Michelle Nunn, a political novice who is only running because of the connections of her father, former Senator Sam Nunn, pulls off an upset. In short, only wishful thinking charts a plausible path to victory.

Republicans have numerous opportunities to pick up their final seat. Even setting aside Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire or Virginia — these lean strongly Democratic and will require a lot of luck on behalf of Republicans to win — races in Alaska, North Carolina, Michigan and Iowa are all possible opportunities.

Alaska only has a Democratic Senator because the late Senator Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption weeks before the 2008 election; charges which were later overturned. Even then, Democratic Senator Mark Begich won by only a few thousand votes. True, his approval rating is respectable, but against credible Republicans, his polling is at best mediocre. His most likely opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mead Tredwell, trails him by only 1 percent in the most recent poll, a very strong place to start.

In North Carolina, Senator Kay Hagan supports a lot of Obama’s unpopular policies and is running scared with poor approval ratings. The Republican field against her, so far, is unclear, but once it settles, all the candidate will need is to consolidate Republican support to have a decent shot at the seat. North Carolina was one of the few states to flip from Obama to the Republicans in 2012.

The open Seat in Iowa presents an interesting challenge. Rep. Bruce Braley is running alone on the Democratic side. The Republican field, on the other hand, includes a well-connected State Senator, a former US Attorney, and a former Chief of Staff to the wildly popular Republican Senator Chuck Grassley; all credible candidates. Braley, while a decent candidate, isn’t particularly strong and has already compounded his race by gaffes, recently complaining about a lack of clean towels in the Congressional gym during the government shutdown. The out-of-touch-politician ads write themselves.

None of this is even to consider the fact that recent events concerning “Obamacare” seem to work strongly in Republicans favor. As people continue to lose their current health insurance and see premiums and co-pays jump, the Democrats are likely to see a serious backlash. Such a backlash almost cost Democrat Terry McAuliffe the Virginia governorship. He won very narrowly after holding a double-digit lead; this is not likely to be unique.

It boils down to this: Republicans are favored in every race they need to take the Senate, save one. They will need to win one race they are not currently favored in to gain control. Between Obamacare and the second midterm curse, this is very possible.

Reid’s luck and viciousness have kept him in power and made him one of the most powerful Senate Majority Leaders of all time. Yet like Mr. Potter, he may not recognize his vulnerability. George Bailey bested Potter because he had friends while Mr. Potter had only bullying. Our own warped, frustrated old man might find his nemesis has a lot more friends than he was prepared for. And it might prove his undoing.