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In 2010, when Republicans stumbled on what had been a clear path to winning control of the Senate, GOP operatives comforted t...
In 2010, when Republicans stumbled on what had been a clear path to winning control of the Senate, GOP operatives comforted themselves with a defiant vow: Just wait 'til next time.
Now, next time is here -- and the GOP is in danger of blowing its shot at a majority for the second cycle in a row.
Republicans fell short of power in 2010 largely because three out-of-the-mainstream candidates -- in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado -- lost states that clearly were winnable if more electable politicians had been on the ballot.
In 2012, the early exuberance about GOP prospects was based largely on simple math: Democrats were defending 23 seats, some of which looked clearly vulnerable, while Republicans were defending only 10 seats.
But less than three weeks before voting, few people in Republican circles are feeling exuberant. Insiders in both parties put the chances of a GOP Senate takeover at less than 50-50. Assuming the current leader in polls in every Senate race hold -- and a couple key races are literally tied -- Democrats would still retain a very slim majority.
The slide in Republican expectations -- from optimism at the start to public second-guessing and private recriminations at the finish line -- are due to more than bad luck and a couple of underperforming candidates, although both of those played an important role.
The GOP's Senate challenges more broadly are a reflection of a party that simply cannot be controlled from Washington down -- but also can't reliably produce good candidates and winning strategies from the grass roots up.
The Senate takeover struggle of 2012 has revealed a central leadership that is unwilling, and perhaps unable, to control its base -- enfeebled by fear of tea party activists, conservative talk show hosts and big-money outsiders who can swing primary races.
Make no mistake -- there will be a batch of conservative senators crowned on Nov. 6, and some GOP candidates struggling in red states against strong Democrats might well pull through. But there are also likely to be several more missed opportunities.
"We ought to be in better shape," conceded Scott Bensing, who served as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2006 under former Sen. John Ensign.
Yes, party leaders suffered a pair of bad breaks that no one saw coming -- Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe's abrupt retirement in late February and Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's explosive remark on "legitimate rape."
But in several of the races -- like Arizona, Wisconsin and Missouri -- the party's hands-off approach to primaries produced battered, weakened candidates who are struggling to pull away in races many Republicans thought were sure bets.
What follows is a POLITICO report, based on more than a dozen interviews with senators, candidates and operatives on the main reasons Republicans are struggling in the battle for Senate control:
THE CHARLIE CRIST EFFECT
There's a legion of reasons why Republican fortunes are darker than most objective analysts projected, but the overarching explanation is that its leaders can't control their base.
No person or group in the Republican Party has the power to prop up or push out candidates. So primary winners often enter the general election battered and cash-poor. That kind of internecine warfare is rare on the Democratic side.
In 2010, it was Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado who snagged away nominations from the establishment preference to disastrous results.
Those weren't the only embarrassments. The national party lined up behind moderate Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, angering tea party activists who loved Marco Rubio. Crist lost and eventually left the party. And when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hand-picked Trey Grayson against tea party favorite Rand Paul, even Grayson was thumped in a primary stunner.
Spooked by the Crist and Paul experience -- along with the other primary endorsement problems in 2010 -- GOP leaders in Washington opted for a more passive approach in 2012.
Though party leaders still got most of the candidates they wanted, they also wound up with Todd Akin in Missouri. His "legitimate rape" comments hang like a cloud over the Republican hopes of winning a seat what was thought to be a shoo-in for the party.
Damned if they do, damned if they don't, goes the thinking.
It's a confounding predicament for party leaders, whose most well-laid plans are susceptible to forces beyond their control.
Sue Lowden, an establishment-backed candidate who was defeated in the 2010 Nevada GOP Senate primary, seemed to wrestle with what approach the GOP should take.
"I think the senatorial committee should come out early if they have someone they like," she said before pausing briefly. "But the people in those states sometimes resent that. There's hostility toward the federal government and a group back in Washington telling Missouri, Nevada or wherever about picking a candidate. It's not as volatile on the Democratic side."
The retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) suggested in an interview that party leaders hadn't yet heeded the lessons of 2010.
"You know what they ought to be worrying about: why we didn't win a lot of races last time," said Snowe. "We have to elect candidates who are going to win. And we have to nominate candidates in primaries" who will win.
HEADS I WIN, TAILS YOU LOSE
But getting the right candidates in every race is much easier said than done, say the tacticians in the trenches.
Bensing acknowledged their counterparts on the Democratic side are much more effective ruling their base with an iron fist.
"Their brokers back in the state are more pliable than we are," he said. "Republicans at the grass-roots level back in the states are not as compliant to GOP wishes coming out of Washington. We may be able to win more seats if we were."
Even in instances where the NRSC's preferred candidate emerges -- like Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin -- they are often hobbled by the rough-and-tumble primary process. Thompson limped out of the primary out of money and had to spend weeks off the airwaves as Rep. Tammy Baldwin pummeled him and vaulted ahead in polls, which now show the race essentially deadlocked.
And if they would've propped up Thompson and tried to clear the primary?
"There'd be a backlash," said Bensing. "You'd have local Republican groups saying, 'Get out of the way. We don't want you here telling us what to do.'"
In Missouri, meanwhile, the hand-wringing continues over the primary that produced Akin, whose nomination threw a lifeline to vulnerable first-term Sen. Claire McCaskill.
David Steelman, whose wife, Sarah Steelman, was one of three candidates in the three-way GOP primary, charged that while the NRSC never publicly endorsed a candidate, its preference was first-time candidate John Brunner, who had the ability to self-fund a race.
Steelman argued that the NRSC's implicit support of Brunner -- at a time when Steelman was already ahead of McCaskill in polls -- "created the dynamic that let Akin win."
"They kept saying to me Akin cannot win and I kept telling them he was going to, if Brunner and his allies -- and I meant NRSC -- was obsessed with Steelman. They told me absolutely clearly up until polling changed that Akin could not win," Steelman told POLITICO.
An NRSC official declined comment, but one GOP operative familiar with the race groused that Steelman had early and ample committee assistance but proved to be an underwhelming candidate.
Matt Miller, a former aide to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said party leaders are responsible for allowing these kinds of problems to fester.
"Winning the seat is more important than not getting criticized. Where the national party has helped shape primaries, we've ended up winning general elections more often than not," Miller said. "They haven't shown the results, so their base isn't willing to sit down and be quiet."
SCHUMER V. CORNYN
Some of the differences between the two parties boil down to how both New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and Cornyn handled backlash from the base when they tried to hand-pick candidates.
When Schumer was DSCC chairman during the 2006 and 2008 cycles, he changed past committee precedent by selecting Democrats in their primaries and then working to clear the field. The strategy angered the left, but it was successful.
In Pennsylvania, the party pushed anti-abortion candidate Bob Casey past the liberal base in 2006. The same year in Ohio, it elevated Sherrod Brown over Iraq War veteran and Netroots favorite Paul Hackett. And in 2008, Schumer picked Jeff Merkley in Oregon over lawyer and political activist Steve Novick.
Schumer called his aggressiveness in primaries a "real sea change" for the party. Before 2005, it was considered "religion" not to intervene in intraparty fights, he said.
"Look, the tea party has more clout -- has undue clout -- on the Republicans," Schumer told POLITICO. "But let me tell you, when we first started this in 2005, there was a load of flak, everywhere."
Schumer said times have changed for his base.
"What happened is they saw the strategy worked. Now they are much more on board. ... I think we've learned it the hard way - that this is what works. We got killed before 2005, and now people who were strongly ideological on the left side realize that this strategy may not achieve 100 percent of their goals, but it achieves 75 or 80 percent of their goals, and that's a lot better than achieving no percent of their goals."
Cornyn declined to be interviewed.
But other Republicans say the Democrats' approach is indicative of its top-down governing philosophy, in which Washington dictates what it wants to the states.
"From governing to candidate recruitment, Democrats broadly think Washington knows best," said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the NRSC. "Not surprisingly, that philosophy has led to the most liberal slate of Senate candidates in over a decade. Conversely, Republicans throughout the country have produced a great slate of candidates, many of whom will be sworn in to the United States Senate in January."
NRSC officials point to the fundraising gains the committee has made since the last presidential cycle in 2008, arguing the committee's war chest grew by 21 percent from 2008 to 2010 even though there were fewer GOP senators to help raise money. With six GOP retirements in 2010, Senate Republicans held those seats and added seven new ones, falling short of the majority in 2010 because nominees in states like Colorado, Nevada, Delaware and California couldn't close the deal.
Moreover, Republicans managed to get most of their candidates in to the general election without divisive primaries -- whether in North Dakota, Montana, Virginia or Ohio.
Most Republicans in Washington understand the predicament Cornyn is in, knowing there's very little the NRSC can do to influence primaries given the inevitable backlash from the base. And the Texan's Senate colleagues are often sympathetic and supportive.
"He's run the NRSC from a perfect-pitch standpoint," said Gordon Hensley, an aide to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2004. "His actions reflect the GOP marketplace right now."
LIMBAUGH AND THE POWER OF THE RIGHT
Part of what has weakened party leaders is the cacophony of critics on the right.
Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Erick Erickson -- their voices all resonate in the halls of the Capitol. Adding to that pressure from the right is the always-hovering presence of tea party activists, super PACs and influential conservative senators like Jim DeMint, whose stamp of approval can rattle a primary race. DeMint declined to be interviewed.
Former Rep. Chris Shays recalled GOP caucus meetings that devoted a considerable amount of time to whatever rhetorical bomb talk was launched that day.
"The talk show hosts in the Republican Party have a lot more impact. Whenever Rush said something, we heard about it. They didn't like what we were doing and it would be discussed in our caucus that we had failed because Rush Limbaugh didn't like us," he said.
Just last week, Erickson lacerated the NRSC on his popular RedState blog for funding candidates he considers weak -- Thompson and George Allen in Virginia -- as it abandons Akin in Missouri, whom he believes can win. And he castigated the NRSC for making a series of poor decisions in 2010, including dumping cash behind the failed candidacy of Carly Fiorina in California.
"Yes, the NRSC is an expert on how to lose," he charged.
Former Rep. Mike Castle, who lost to O'Donnell in the 2010 primary, said there are greater divisions within the GOP than among Democrats, particularly on the congressional level. And the biggest reason is the growing influence of outside conservative groups that hold Republicans' feet to the fire in primaries.
"There are many Republicans who basically test their vote on how conservative they believe you are," Castle said. "There aren't many Republicans out there running and saying 'I'm a moderate.'"
Paul, who won his 2012 race on a tea party platform, said it's not fair to blame the tea party for the party's problems. What that argument neglects, he said, is that the energy from the movement has helped produce several crucial electoral wins and driven the national debate on the mounting debt.
"People who blame it on the tea party typically don't like people who are from the tea party," Paul told POLITICO.
The Republican roster next year could include candidates such as North Dakota's Rick Berg, Montana's Denny Rehberg, Nebraska's Deb Fischer, Wisconsin's Thompson, Virginia's Allen, Indiana's Richard Mourdock, Texas's Ted Cruz and Arizona's Jeff Flake. Only Cruz and Mourdock -- who defeated longtime GOP veteran Dick Lugar -- are considered part of the tea party mold and even Mourdock eschews the label.
Lugar was seen as a safe bet for reelection, but now Mourdock is in a tough race against Democrat Joe Donnelly. Flake has been battered after a long and expensive primary against a wealthy self-funder, putting him in a tough battle with Democrat Richard Carmona; Berg and Rehberg have been hampered by their service in an unpopular House; and Allen and Thompson are struggling to command the support they won when they were governors of their respective states in a different era.
There's even an outside chance that every one of these Republicans could lose, an unthinkable scenario from a year ago. Demographic shifts in Northern Virginia, Arizona and Nevada -- mainly an influx of Latino voters -- are also giving Democrats a boost in those swing states.
Now, GOP hopes rest in part on an upset in a blue state: Connecticut, where Republican Linda McMahon finds herself in a tight race against Democrat Chris Murphy.
THE ROMNEY EFFECT
By no real measure can Romney be considered an ideological leader -- he most certainly was not the choice of the tea party, and the base has been far more fired up by the prospect of beating Obama than electing Romney. And neither side knows whether he would govern as the Massachusetts moderate that defined his governorship or the "severe" conservative who methodically won the Republican nomination this year.
What's clearer is that Romney's struggles against Obama during much of the general election -- the past few weeks are a notable exception -- have deprived Senate candidates in key swing states of a needed boost. The fortunes of GOP hopefuls in Wisconsin, Virginia, Nevada, Ohio and Florida are closely tied to the top of the ticket.
"I believe if Mitt Rommey wins Nevada, I win Nevada," Sen. Dean Heller, the Republican incumbent who is in a tight race against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, said in the Capitol recently.
Bensing, the former top NRSC aide, said Romney and Obama's effect on the race for the Senate should not be discounted.
"Generally, there was a belief among Republicans that we're stuck with Barack Obama another four years," said Bensing, who acknowledged a recent uptick for Romney. "People were looking at a very frustrating scenario that we had everything working on our side and we couldn't get over the hump at the presidential level."
A strong finish by Romney could provide a real lift for Republican hopes of capturing the Senate, say NRSC officials.
"Gov. Romney's strong debate performance has invigorated Republican Senate campaigns across the country," Jesmer said. "Certainly we expect the election to be close, but we have a real shot at taking the majority."