New Jersey is a pretty good state for Democrats. And yet, it has a Republican governor — a popular one, at that. So an open Senate seat should be competitive.
Or so one would think. As of right now, it certainly appears that the real fight for the late Frank Lautenberg’s seat will be in the Democratic primary, where three solid Democratic hopefuls will square off, and not in the October general election. Numerous Republicans have already opted out; the only entrant so far, Steve Lonegan, doesn’t appear to have a good profile for winning statewide in a moderately liberal state. Republicans are already starting up a blame game, rather than getting excited at the chance to pick off a seat they haven’t held for decades.
This isn’t new. The disaster candidates — the Angles, Akins, and O’Donnells — get plenty of publicity, and there’s no question that they’ve cost Republicans a few seats. But just as important in the last few cycles have been recruitment failures in winnable seats. Democrats such as Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Bill Nelson in Florida, and Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota had much easier re-elections than they probably should have had in 2012. Already in 2014, it appears that Al Franken isn’t going to draw a strong opponent; Republican recruitment in Iowa and even Alaska isn’t going very well, either.
These aren’t 100% opportunities; the best possible Republican in New Jersey this fall would still be an underdog. But essentially they’ve taken a bunch of contests where the right candidate might have had a 40 percent chance and instead made them easy Democratic wins.
As I’ve said before, this is not surprising when most of the energy and a lot of the other resources of the party winds up with Tea Party candidates, even those who make terrible general election candidates. Running statewide is a major commitment, and if reaching the general election is iffy, people just aren’t going to do it. Indeed, the real danger with Tea Party upsets is that they seem to come out of nowhere; that makes it very difficult for other party leaders to assure a strong candidate that she is guaranteed nomination.
Of course, there are a few that have gone the other way (Democrats in this cycle seem to be striking out in South Dakota, while Republicans appear to have recruited successfully there and in West Virginia). And it’s still early in the 2014 cycle. Hey, it’s still early in the New Jersey special; maybe someone strong will jump in. Overall, however, this is exactly the kind of weakness that’s cost Republicans so badly in Senate elections.