As I spoke this week to GOP donors and operatives on the “establishment” side of the party, there was consensus on a number of aspects of the 2014 race, most but not all good for Republicans. What came through loud and clear was that candidates matter very much both in primaries and in general elections for competitive Senate seats. Aside from the general unpopularity of President Obama and key policy positions (e.g. Obamacare, resistance to energy development), there is no more important factor in determining who will win the Senate majority.
Donors and GOP insiders are pleased (ranging from relieved to delighted) with candidate quality, not only because there are no obvious clunkers such as Todd Akin but also because individual candidates such as North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and Monica Wehby in Oregon can impress crowds and donors alike while also being well received by the media. This generates enthusiasm among donors for them personally and not simply for control of the Senate. Ed Gillespie in Virginia is a good example of a candidate who wins over donors and state activists who then are willing to take a chance on a race in which the Republican is still the clear underdog.
That said, the GOP still has primaries that may significantly affect the ability to take the Senate because of the relative capabilities of the candidates. In Mississippi, where Chris McDaniel has a load of baggage and a habit of making inflammatory remarks, an upset win against incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) would put the race in play. The Democrats’ likely nominee, former representative Travis Childers (D-Miss.), should not be taken lightly. Likewise, because Wehby is personally appealing and a good ideological match for her state, her win in the primary is essential to put the race in play.
Fortunately for Republicans, certain primary races never materialized either because there was no organized opposition (South Carolina) or because only one Republican proved to be viable (e.g. Louisiana, Alaska, Kentucky). In Alaska, as Dan Sullivan has caught fire, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell has faded fast. In Kentucky, Matt Bevin is a punch line, while in Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) is almost certain to make the runoff against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). This allows the GOP to spend resources in more competitive races where the primary outcome is uncertain and critical to winning the seat.
While commentators are comparing the 2014 midterms to 2010 in terms of GOP momentum and enthusiasm, GOP insiders often remark that the surge this time is visible earlier. Money and support are flowing in sooner than in the 2010 election cycle. Third-party groups are now more experienced and more fully engaged than they were in 2010. That means the Chamber of Commerce may run an ad blitz one month while another PAC can husband resources for other races. Timing is as important as the amount of spending. Establishment Republicans plainly saw the importance of a Tillis win both to winning that seat and setting the tone for the election. They spent heavily there rather than, for example, spending now in Louisiana, which is likely to come down to the runoff in December.
Republicans are not measuring the drapes for the Senate majority leader’s office yet, in large part because they are all too aware that not all Democratic incumbents are duds; some are cagey and won’t be beaten unless the GOP opponent can make an ironclad case that the incumbent is a rubber stamp. Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) are better in this regard than Landrieu or Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). That means the races in Alaska and Colorado will be tough down to the wire and top-notch challengers have little room for error. Working in the GOP’s favor in Colorado is the perception that Udall is a “Boulder Democrat” — way to the left of most people in the state.
The best example of capable opposition may be in Georgia. Democrat Michelle Nunn is doing a masterful job defining herself as a moderate, although her actual views and record ( e.g. early support for Occupy Wall Street) are anything but middle of the road. She is not relying solely on her father, who may not be so familiar to the current generation. The winner will need to puncture her appearance of moderation. Fortunately for Republicans, the top contenders — David Perdue, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and former secretary of state Karen Handel, who are likely vying for a two-person runoff — are all capable, mature candidates.
In the pleasant surprise category, Terri Lynn Land is proving to be an overachiever in Michigan. She is running a disciplined race and has effectively tied her opponent to the anti-energy agenda of big donors and liberal elites. A race that many expected would soon revert to form (e.g. a Democratic win in a blue state) is truly up for grabs. She will also be aided by incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder (R) at the top of the ticket.
Likewise, Iowa may also be falling into the GOP’s lap. GOP insiders admit that they had largely written off the state. But Rep. Bruce Braley (D) is proving to be a problematic candidate, not only because of his gaffe insulting farmers, but also because of his unpleasant and wise-guy demeanor. Joni Ernst is making waves with eye-catching ads, but businessman Mark Jacobs is proving to be an adept fundraiser. Provided that one of the two captures the nomination, the race could well be nip and tuck down the stretch.
Finally, the Kentucky Senate general election will remain competitive, but Alison Lundergan Grimes is proving to be a less adept candidate, to both sides’ surprise, than, say, Michelle Nunn. Grimes has at key moments seemed to hide from the media. Key for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) will be making sure Kentuckians understand how liberal she is. While McConnell has rarely emphasized social issues in his campaign, other groups may choose to raise her pro-choice and pro-gay marriage stances in a state that’s among the most socially conservative in the country. It is noteworthy that in the wake of the Supreme Court decision on public prayer, McConnell sent out a statement praising the decision. (“Lawmakers in both the House and Senate of the Kentucky General Assembly and in many other state legislatures across the country also begin their daily proceedings with prayer. I am pleased the Court reaffirmed the strong constitutional footing of this important American tradition.”) While the focus of the race is not likely to be on social issues, these issues and her embrace by liberal Hollywood donors looking to oust McConnell may help cement his case that she is out of step with the state.
What was interesting is what didn’t come up in my discussions — the role of groups including the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and Tea Party Patriots. These groups’ bark has proved to be infinitely stronger than their bite. That the GOP insiders’ focus has now turned to a very few number of competitive primaries and keeping as many states in play as possible suggests that they are feeling confident both to win the Senate and redirect the party to the center right, where majorities and the White House are won and lost. In victory they can afford to be magnanimous.