The list of potential Senate pickups keeps growing. Just including races where the Democratic candidate is behind or leading opponents by single digits in public polling, you get the following: West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina, Michigan, Colorado and Virginia. If Scott Brown decides to run in New Hampshire, you can add that to the list for a total of eleven states. And I haven’t mentioned states such as Iowa, Oregon or Minnesota, where a strong contender might gain momentum in a wave election.

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

Jennifer Duffy of Cook Political Report observes:

It never ceases to amaze us how quickly an incumbent’s electoral fortunes can change.  This cycle’s example might be first-term Democratic Sen. Mark Udall [of Colorado].  For months, it appeared that Udall would face a challenger who was either damaged by a past campaign or one who was relatively unknown.  Outside groups have not expressed any interest in the race.  Even Udall himself has been running at a steady but leisurely pace, and without the urgency that many of his colleagues from the Class of 2008 have had to demonstrate.  The race did a 180-degree turn yesterday when Republican Rep. Cory Gardner announced that he would challenge Udall.

Couple that with Obama’s rotten polling, the unpopularity of Obamacare and a whiff of scandal, and now it’s entirely possible Udall will lose. Like other prognosticators Duffy has shifted the race to “leans Democrat.”

The pattern (with or without scandal) repeats in state after state. In Virginia, Democrat Mark Warner was thought to be an invincible incumbent. Until the end of January, the GOP had no widely known candidate in the race. Then, as in Colorado, a heavyweight entered the race (Ed Gillespie) and Warner began getting tripped up on Obamacare and even the minimum wage. Suddenly, people remember that Warner has never faced a very competitive opponent. Maybe he’s wasn’t on solid footing after all.

There is a pattern here worth noting. Eleven seats did not get into play by running unknown, fire-breathing ideologues hand-picked by the Senate Conservatives Fund. The GOP has been able to recruit solid conservatives who do not come across as crazy people. So the first rule is to get competent candidates who know how to get elected in statewide races.

Second, for all the right wing’s grousing, elected Republicans in the House and Senate have held the line on Obamacare, voting in unanimity to repeal, replace, delay and defund Obamacare. They all voted against the stimulus. There is no question on whose backs sits the responsibility for the debacles we see unfolding. The GOP sure didn’t need the shutdown to let everyone know who stood where; in fact, as soon as it was over and the focus turned to Obamacare, the GOP’s 2014 fortunes rose. Rule number two, then, is to draw a clear distinction between the parties and make the other guy own the unpopular agenda.

The groups that make money from GOP bitterness will always concoct a rationale to leave them in the right (pun intended). They have the luxury of claiming victory no matter what happens. If the GOP wins, they’ll say, “We forced them act like conservatives.”  If Republicans lose, they’ll blame the “establishment” and raise money off that. But in this case, to be clear, the candidates who have put 11 or more seats in play were, by and large, not the favorites of these right-wing groups.

The Club for Growth, for example, attacked Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.); she now leads her opponent by double digits. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and FreedomWorks loaded up the Greg Brannon bandwagon in North Carolina; he’s now in legal trouble. (The most likely GOP nominee and the one who will make the race close is state House Speaker Thom Tillis, the dreaded “establishment” figure.) The insurgent candidate challenging Sen. John Cornyn (R) in Texas literally disappeared for some time. In Colorado, the race became competitive when tea party favorite Ken Buck got out. New Hampshire can become competitive, but only if Brown, a moderate former senator from Massachusetts, gets in.

The candidates the right wing most ardently backs, namely Matt Bevin and Milton Wolf, are far behind the incumbent, mainstream Republicans. Tea party-type groups have poured in about $1.3 million to date on Bevin, a candidate 30 or more points in back of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. It is conceivable that the tea party-backed candidate Chris McDaniel, despite some rocky outings, might beat out incumbent Thad Cochran in Mississippi, but the seat is virtually a slam-dunk for the GOP either way.

The tea party chiefs are already making excuses. The head of the Madison Project lamely insists, “When you’re running against the establishment, you are never going to find any candidate that does not have something that can either be taking out of context, exploited, or something that can be completely used against him.” Really? Well then, perhaps they should leave candidate recruitment to the grown-ups. Running defective candidates — really defective candidates — in key states is just asking for embarrassment.

If, after millions of dollars raised and spent, innumerable “scored votes,” a government shutdown and endless attacks on incumbent Republicans, all the radicals have to show for their efforts is swapping one safe Republican for another in a deep-red state while wiping out everywhere else, it’s hard to see how they could claim victory. At some point you have to win something, somewhere to maintain relevance.

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) says he’s backing insurgents, you wonder which ones he finds admirable. It seems only fair that he tell voters whom specifically he favors, right? It will be interesting to see if the leader of the infamous shutdown will take credit if Republicans win despite his effort. What if all the insurgents lose and the GOP takes the Senate?

Many have begun to wonder what service these faux-grass-roots groups, many just a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill, are providing to the cause of conservatism or to the GOP, and at what cost. They can’t even claim credit for the most topical policy proposals. Three establishment senators offered an Obamacare alternative, the Ways and Means chairman crafted a tax reform plan, House leaders spelled out immigration principles and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came up with budgets that can pass. The right-wing groups, by contrast, generate angry phone calls and dredge the conservative well for every penny they can find.

So really what good are they? That’ll be the question in the aftermath of the 2014 elections. For now, it’s just important to remember who backed whom and how so many seats came into play.

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