In the closing hours of the 2012 campaign, all attention will be focused on the race for the presidency.
Obama and Romney remain statistically tied in national polls. While 27 new polls released on Wednesday show a significant bounce in Romney’s numbers since the Denver debate, Obama still holds a steady lead in most swing states, furnishing him with a clear advantage in the Electoral College vote. Based on the new data, Nate Silver’s FiveThiryEight Blog at the New York Times gives Obama a 79% probability of taking the College’s absolute majority.
But while pundits and spin-artists rant and rave about whether Obama or Romney has the momentum going in to Tuesday, the far more important story will be found further down the ticket.
The figurehead in the White House may count for bragging rights but the real movers and shakers are chosen in the congressional races and nowhere is the problem for Republicans more apparent than in Senate elections across the country.
Back in 2010, following the “summer of anger” over President Obama’s health care reforms, the Tea Party appeared as a player on the political scene. The Tea Party, a conservative anti-government movement, successfully primaried many moderate Republicans, resulting in the largest freshman class seated in the House of Representatives in 60 years, 93% of it Republican.
Yet where the Tea Party saw success in House races taking place in heavily gerrymandered districts, the Tea Party’s efforts in the Senate resulted in disaster for the GOP. Expected to have a strong shot at taking the Senate, Republican’s watched their majority slip away as Tea Party candidates bungled and offended, turning surefire wins into blow-out losses.
In Delaware, Democratic candidate Chris Coons went from losing by 11 points against expected Republican candidate Mike Castle to blowing eventual Republican candidate Christine O’Donnell out of the water by 16 points. O’Donnell, the Tea Party favorite that came from behind to unseat Castle for the Republican nomination saw her campaign fall apart rapidly among reports of her using campaign funds for personal expenses and a number of strange campaign ads and TV appearances. Despite an endorsement from Sarah Palin, O’Donnell turned an 11-point Republican lead into a 16-point loss and a Democratic seat in the Senate.
In Nevada, Democrat Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid was at his most vulnerable going into the 2010 midterms. His challenger, Republican Sharon Angle, was a Tea Party darling. She received endorsements from the national Tea Party Express and a bevy of conservative celebrities including Sarah Palin, talk radio host Mark Levin, and Joe the Plumber. June polls following her primary win showed her leading Harry Reid by 11 points. Unfortunately for the GOP, that all changed the second she opened her mouth. Angle’s many gaffes included telling a group of Latino students that they looked Asian and telling a hypothetical 13-year-old rape victim to avoid abortion and turn “a lemon situation into lemonade.”
Within a month of her meeting the general electorate, Angel’s 11 point lead turn into a seven point deficit. The 18 point swing was the largest one-month shift in opinion in the history of Senate elections. Not surprisingly, the end result was an easy victory for Harry Reid as he defended his seat 50% to 44%.
In Colorado, Republican Ken Buck came from being an unheard of District Attorney to unseating the expected GOP candidate and overall favorite, Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton. Despite, or perhaps because of his extensive Tea Party support, Buck went on to lose to Democrat Michael Bennet in the election 46% to 48%, delivering another Senate seat to the Democrats.
Those three states, which the Republicans had all but gift-wrapped going into the final months of the 2010 campaign season, were backbreaking losses for the GOP. On November 7, 2010, the Democrats found themselves having retained control of the Senate by a single Senator. Even if counting the two Independents who caucus with the Democrats, the losses in Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado unquestionably cost Republicans the Senate, and all thanks to the Tea Party.
This election cycle, we’re seeing the problem play itself out all over again.
Before campaign season even got underway, Maine’s Olympia Snowe, one of the few remaining moderate Republicans, announced that she would not run for re-election. Forced out by a party whose leadership had declared their number one goal to be opposing the president rather than pragmatic governance, Snowe declined to even inform GOP leadership of her decision, a slap in the face to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. An extremely popular Senator in an otherwise liberal Maine, Snow has ceded her seat to Angus King, an Independent who will caucus with the Democrats. King is currently leading his Republican opponent by 26 points, despite having his share of the vote diluted by a Democratic challenger.
In Missouri, Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill was given new life by the Republican nomination of Tea Party congressman Todd Akin. Akin got a great deal of attention in late August after responding to a question about abortion in cases of rape by stating that the bodies of women who were victims of what Akin called “legitimate rape” could “shut that whole thing down" and prevent pregnancy. His comments, along with being completely at odds with science, helped McCaskill, an 8 point underdog in the summer, build a comfortable 6 point lead in the polls heading in to Tuesday.
Finally, in Indiana, six-term Senator, Rhodes Scholar, and senior Republican on both the Foreign Relations and Agriculture committees Richard Lugar was unseated by Tea Party darling Richard Mourdock. While Lugar was a 21 point favorite over Democratic challenger Joe Donnelly, Mourdock, who made headlines last week after stating that pregnancies that result from rape are “intended by God,” has turned a sure thing into an unmitigated disaster. The most recent polls, published yesterday, had Mourdock losing to Donnelly by as many as 11 points. For those keeping track at home, that’s a 30 point swing in a state expected to go for Romney by an average of 13 points. The Tea Party sure knows how to pick ‘em.
If the numbers continue trending the way they are, the Tea Party will be responsible for single-handedly delivering five Senate seats to the Democrats in two election cycles. Beyond that 10 vote swing, 2012’s Tea Party Senate candidates have also all but ensured that the Democrats will retain their 51 seat majority in the Senate. Even in the unlikely case that all six “toss-up” races go in favor of Republicans on Tuesday, the Democrats would still hold a majority thanks to Tea Party supported candidates. In short, Republican dreams of retaking the Senate in 2012 have again been demolished by a kooky cadre of Tea Party nominees that seem to specialize in little more than torpedoing their own campaigns and their party’s hopes for congressional control.
The important question for Republicans to answer will be whether their home-grown monster is something worth keeping around. While the outrage and grassroots outreach provided by the Tea Party has provided an undeniable level of energy for the GOP, the handicapping of the party among the general electorate at the national level is sure to be making party leadership very nervous. How the party adjusts to this latest series of unforced errors will help determine whether Republicans may have a better shot in 2014 or whether we will see further Republican losses in both the House and the Senate.