Can Republicans turn potential into reality?

Published 1:47 pm Monday, December 10, 2012

By Larry J. Sabato & Kyle Kondik

As the 2012 election fades into the history books, we begin our first look at the 2014 contests for Senate, House and governor. Let’s start with the Senate, which will be the site of an intense battle for control once again.

Before looking ahead at the Republicans’ prospects to gain the six seats, they need to win control of the Senate, it is first important — though for Republicans, painful — to look back at the past two Senate cycles.

In 2010, Republicans probably threw away three seats when they nominated weak candidates in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada. Then, in the just-concluded election, they threw away, at a minimum, two more seats in Indiana and Missouri (thanks to the disastrous candidacies of Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin). And that’s not counting other Senate races where different Republican candidates might have performed better or even won in Florida, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and Virginia.

So instead of having a tied Senate, or a tiny majority for one side or the other, Republicans are in the unenviable position of needing to levitate out of a deep hole they’ve dug for themselves. Only then can they end Nevada Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s six-year leadership of the Senate.

The 113th Congress is slated to open in early January with Democrats holding a 55-45 edge in the U.S. Senate. The number includes two independents, Sen.-elect Angus King of Maine and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who will caucus with the Democrats.

This assumes that the composition of the Senate does not change; it’s always possible that a senator will leave office prematurely, perhaps to take another position — for instance, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., might join the Obama administration as secretary of state or defense.

At first blush, the 2014 Senate map presents some promising opportunities for Republicans. Of the 33 seats that will be contested in November 2014, Republicans only have to defend 13 while Democrats have to defend 20. And the Republican seats are almost entirely situated in deeply Republican states.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney captured seven of the 20 states where Democrats will defend seats: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. Of those seven, only North Carolina, where Romney won by about two points, was even close at the presidential level.

In the other six states, Obama’s best performance was in Montana, where he secured just 41.7 percent. Given that midterm electorates are typically smaller, older and whiter than presidential electorates — which generally will make them more Republican — and given that Democrats are dangerously exposed in several Romney states, Republicans have a multitude of juicy targets, while Democrats have few.

That said, let’s recall that at this time two years ago, Republicans also had an attractive playing field. They had to defend only 10 seats, while Democrats had to defend 23. And yet Democrats actually ended up netting two seats. Not to be overly cruel, but the GOP had to try hard to blow the Senate in 2012 — and their efforts were amply rewarded.

To capitalize on the new opportunities presented by the 2014 Senate map, Republican voters are going to have to make wiser choices in primaries than they made in 2010 and 2012. But has the party base learned its lesson? It is not at all clear, and efforts by the Republican leadership in D.C. to impose preferred candidates likely won’t be met well in many states in the next go-round either.

LARRY SABATO is director for the University of Virginia Center for Politics and can be reached at KYLE KONDIK is the center’s director of communications and can be reached at