It’s increasingly clear that whatever happens to the White House and the House of Representatives, the 2010 cycle is going to be a monumental disaster for Republicans in the Senate. The most likely outcome is probably a dead-even 47 seats for the GOP, but given that the Democrats were defending 23 seats while Republicans only had 10 to defend, Democrats would be thrilled with breaking even — and there’s even a fairly good chance that Democrats could increase their majority a bit.
You’re going to hear a whole lot about Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, assuming both of them lose. And rightly so; Richard Lugar would be winning easily in Indiana, and several candidates would probably be doing better for the Republicans in Missouri.
But the real story of this cycle, while it is a tea party story, isn’t in those states. It’s in about ten other contests: Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, West Virginia, Washington, New Jersey, and perhaps Maine and Wisconsin. In the first eight of those, Republicans were unable to recruit a strong nominee. In Maine, Olympia Snowe retired; in Wisconsin, the Republicans wound up nominating an apparently weak candidate. In most, and maybe all of these states, the Republican Senate candidate will run well behind Mitt Romney. All of them were at least potentially winnable for the GOP.
My strong suspicion is that what’s happening here are strong Republican potential candidates driven away by tea party primary upsets. They can’t trust that the nomination field will be cleared for them; they can’t trust that the usual recipe — raising plenty of money and securing the backing of party-aligned leaders and groups — will be enough. And ambitious professional politicians, who also generally are the best candidates, aren’t willing to take that sort of risk.
There may even be policy position factors involved: It’s possible, although less likely, that some potentially strong Republican candidates just don’t want to run on a tea party platform, fighting for things such as the demise of the direct election of senators.
Now, it’s possible that Republican recruitment fell short for other reasons. And in at least two states, Hawaii and New Mexico, Republicans probably wound up with the best candidate available but have not managed to run competitive campaigns anyway. Overall, however, it’s a striking recruitment failure, enough so that I suspect there is a systematic reason for it. And not only are the tea party primaries the obvious (possible) cause of this cycle’s likely GOP Senate fiasco, but after Missouri and Indiana it seems very possible that next cycle will be more of the same.