Chief correspondent

The biggest mistake political parties often make is learning the wrong lessons from victory or defeat, but particularly victory. Republicans face that possibility as they anticipate what they hope will be a successful midterm election in November.

Republicans are more than confident that they will hold or even expand their House majority this fall. And they are increasingly optimistic about taking control of the Senate. The danger is that party leaders, and perhaps some of the prospective GOP presidential candidates, will conclude that success in November will have proved that what has ailed the party wasn’t so worrisome after all.

The playing field this November bears an only modest resemblance to that of a presidential election. The Republicans need to gain a net of six seats to control the Senate. Their best opportunities are all in presidentially red states. They could take control of the Senate without having to win a single contest in any state that Barack Obama carried in either of the past two elections.

Republicans have legitimate opportunities to pick up seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. In the past four presidential elections, Republicans have averaged no worse than 56 percent of the vote in those states. Add to that list North Carolina, which Obama narrowly won in 2008 and then lost in 2012, and Republicans have seven prime opportunities on favorable terrain.

Republicans are favored in two states where Democratic senators are retiring: South Dakota and West Virginia. They also are favored in Montana, for the seat vacated by longtime Democratic senator Max Baucus, who was recently confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to China. His replacement, Sen. John Walsh, is an underdog to hold the seat in November.

Inside the 36 Senate contests of 2014

In Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, Republicans must unseat incumbents. That makes their challenge more difficult. But in recent elections, because of polarization and a decline in split-ticket voting, results in Senate races increasingly have followed those in presidential races. And Obama’s approval ratings in these states are even lower than his tepid national average.

Republicans also have several potential opportunities outside heavily Republican states. These include Michigan, Colorado and Iowa, and maybe New Hampshire and Virginia. The better they do in those states in November, the better they will feel about the overall outcome. But if they win the Senate primarily on the strength of their performance in the red states, what has it really told them about winning the presidency?

Electorates in off-year elections are, by nature, older and whiter than the electorates in presidential years, giving the GOP an edge. The traditional Republican coalition could be enough to hold the House and win control of the Senate this fall, but absent a sizeable “time for a change” mood in 2016, they will need to expand that coalition to win the presidency.

Hispanic, female voters

Some Republicans have suggested that they can win in 2016 by doing even better with white voters than they did in 2012. But Obama lost the white vote by a bigger margin than any other successful Democratic presidential candidate. It is doubtful that the next Democratic nominee would do as badly or worse than the president did with white voters.

Hillary Rodham Clinton won large majorities among working-class whites in her nomination contest with Obama in 2008, and while she would not do as well against a Republican in a general election, she almost certainly would do better than Obama.

What will the midterm elections say about the GOP’s ability to attract more young or Hispanic voters? Probably very little, in part because most Republican candidates won’t need as many of those voters to win as their presidential nominee will need in 2016.

The competition for female voters will be intense, and this fall could be an indicator of whether Republicans have found ways to narrow the gender gap.

Beyond issues of political geography and demographics are questions about what the party stands for.

Republicans can unify around opposition to the Affordable Care Act, but that alone won’t settle differences over other issues likely to come into play in 2016.

If anyone doubts there is a competition for ideas underway, they need look only at what some of the party’s prospective presidential candidates have said recently.

This past week, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) challenged the president — and by implication many in his own party — over government surveillance.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush defended Common Core educational standards against opposition from many conservatives who see them as a federal intrusion into what should be the purview of state and local officials and parents.

And earlier this month, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) implored Republicans not to yield an inch on principles, while Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) warned that Republicans must give winning elections a higher priority than winning intraparty ideological debates.

This jockeying for position among the possible presidential candidates is taking place almost in isolation from what House and Senate candidates are doing and saying for their midterm contests.

The risk is that Republicans could win in November with strong rhetoric opposing the president but without putting together a true governing agenda. This is not a new problem for a party that has employed strongly anti-government messages to win congressional elections. In power, they have faltered when pressed to translate their rhetoric into policies and programs that can win widespread public support.

Conservative intellectuals continue to urge that elected officials push beyond orthodoxy and develop support for more innovative ideas. The party is not yet close to a real consensus alternative to Obamacare.

Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) have put forward ideas about alleviating poverty, revamping welfare and stimulating more jobs and less income inequality, but that debate is in the embryonic stages.

Those are just two examples.

Triangulation required

What mandate will Republicans seek for 2015 if they control Congress? And how much will the party’s 2016 presidential candidates feel tied, or constrained, by what congressional Republicans do and say?

The party’s success in 2010, fueled by the rise of the tea party, forced Mitt Romney and the other presidential candidates to bend farther to the right, leaving them vulnerable in the general election.

It’s not unheard of for presidential candidates to triangulate between the opposition party and their own congressional wing. To do so requires either someone with a substantial base of support at the beginning of the nomination process, and therefore the confidence to take on his or her party, or someone with longer odds who’s willing to take the risk of saying some fresh and possibly unpopular things and accepting what comes from the voters, as Rand Paul is doing.

At this point, it’s premature for Republicans to count their victories or declare the Democrats the losers. Winning is always better than losing. But victory can come with a price, unless a party’s leaders are wise enough to learn the right lessons.

For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to