In the past couple of days Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced that they are retiring. In addition to West Virginia, there will be at least three seats with no incumbent in 2014 up for grabs (four if you count Massachusetts and the appointee decides not to run).

Sen. Mitch McConnell -Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg Sen. Mitch McConnell (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The GOP is delighted by the prospect of picking up two longtime Democratic seats in West Virginia and Iowa. On Saturday Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senate Committee, released a statement: “Today’s announcement by Senator Harkin immediately vaults Iowa into the top tier of competitive Senate races next year. With Democrats already on defense in a number of key states such as West Virginia, Louisiana, South Dakota and others, there is no question that this is very troubling news for Harry Reid and his liberal friends in Washington.”

So how does the GOP avoid messing up as it did in 2010 and 2012 when winnable Senate seats slipped through their fingers? I would make five suggestions.

First, in Georgia the GOP can look for ideological purity and find the most conservative candidate, making sure to vet out undisciplined and inexperienced candidates to avoid a repeat of the Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock debacles. (Rep. Tom Price comes to mind.) But, let’s be clear: Republicans do not have the luxury of selecting the most right-wing candidate and/or destroying viable center-right candidates in states such as West Virginia and Iowa. Certainly, some hard line conservatives already have mindlessly attacked Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), probably the only Republican who could replace Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). But that should not repeat itself if Republicans actually want to win seats currently held by Democrats.

Take Iowa. Republicans could pick someone like anti-immigration zealot Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) or they could turn to Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), who is popular with both grass-roots and establishment Republicans, doesn’t have a scary record of extremism, has represented more than half of Iowa’s 99 counties in Congress, voted against TARP and bailouts in debt-averse Iowa and lost Polk County by only 4,000 votes in the GOP’s rotten 2012 election. King might be satisfying to some right-wing bloggers, but then again so was Sharron Angle.

Second, Republicans contesting these seats should put feet to the fire of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the do-nothing Senate that hasn’t passed a budget, taken up tax reform, tackled entitlements or exercised proper oversight over executive branch appointees. They are in essence nothing more than lackeys for President Obama’s extreme agenda. Republicans who embrace common sense, center-right policies should make the case that it is time to stop talking a good game back home and running interference for the collectivist president in Washington.

Third, it is way too early to give up on any seats now. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) right now enjoys sky-high approval ratings, but in fact he’s voted for Obamacare and the stimulus  and is doing nothing (at least yet) to prevent devastating sequestration and/or block extreme appointees. In a year or so his approval rating may look quite different. Maybe Gov. Bob McDonnell might then want to take him on, or maybe a new, dynamic face (superstar lawyer and Virginia native Miguel Estrada, who just won the case against Obama on recess appointments, would be ideal.) Make the current Senate Democrats cast hard votes, and if they remain joined at the hip with Obama, Republicans should press for the advantage.

Fourth, just because the president has taken his eye off the ball doesn’t mean Republicans should. North Carolina has an unemployment rate over 9 percent. Arkansas and Colorado have unemployment rates over 7 percent. So what pro-jobs and pro-growth policies have Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Mark Udall (D-Col.) pushed for, and why do they think higher and higher taxes are the answer? Are they working to block sequestration and extreme nominees such as Chuck Hagel who favor devastating defense cuts that weaken the United States and run up unemployment in these states? How are they going to challenge the president on global warming legislation that will kill domestic energy development?

Five, Republicans will need a pro-growth agenda and the promise of problem solving to win the Senate. What good policies would already be law (e.g., the Keystone XL pipeline) if the Senate didn’t have Reid as majority leader? It is not simply that a slew of red- and purple-state Democrats are out of step with their constituents; it is that they don’t do anything.

It is entirely possible for the GOP to win the Senate, but it must must choose nominees wisely, avoid extreme and undisciplined newcomers, press Democrats who have rubber-stamped the Obama agenda and prevent a can-do, reform-minded agenda. If so, Reid might finally join Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as his body’s minority leader.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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