Political history and the mood of the electorate would seem to indicate Democrats are on their way to significant losses this fall.
But they may have some help mitigating the damage from an unwitting ally — the Republicans.
The GOP is wrestling with a series of challenges, some familiar and some new, that could dampen the party’s prospects for recapturing Congress this November.
All were on vivid display Tuesday.
In the Kentucky Senate primary, the weakness of the party’s national leadership and the double-edged nature of the tea party movement were revealed in full measure as the candidate tapped by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the father of the modern Kentucky GOP, couldn’t come within 20 points of Rand Paul, a libertarian-leaning political outsider who won’t even commit to supporting McConnell for leader.
And while Paul’s romp speaks to the energy GOP candidates can derive from tapping into the tea party movement, the quickness with which Democrats pounced on the GOP nominee’s positions on, for example, eliminating the Department of Education and ending farm subsidies illustrates the political risk Republicans take in nominating ideological purists.
In the Pennsylvania special election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha, Republicans proved that they haven’t yet determined how to win in the sort of districts they’ll need to carry to take back the majority. Paint-by-numbers attacks on Democrats as water carriers for President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won’t cut it if the opposition doesn’t have actual ties or a record connecting the candidate to the party’s national leadership. It’s as ineffectual as the most recent Democratic efforts to link Republicans to former President George W. Bush. If there’s no predicate laid and if the accused candidate can believably dismiss the charge as political hyperbole, voters won’t buy it.
The GOP also has yet to find a satisfactory answer to the following question: Why should voters return the keys to Congress to them when Republicans don’t seem to have learned their lesson from 2006 when it comes to scandal? Rep. Mark Souder’s admission Tuesday that he had an affair with a staffer makes him only the latest family values-preaching Republican to practice adultery. At least Souder resigned immediately — Sens. John Ensign of Nevada and David Vitter of Louisiana, not to mention South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, remain in office, reminding voters about Republican hypocrisy when it comes to sex.
Publicly, congressional Republicans downplayed concerns about Tuesday’s results and reiterated that they were optimistic about this fall. But there is plainly some worry about how the party is approaching what should be a fruitful election cycle and, in the wake of the 8-point Pennsylvania House loss, exactly how resources should be directed.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, standing just feet from House Minority Leader John Boehner at a news conference Wednesday, took a barely veiled shot at the leader’s recent ramping up of expectations for November.
“I think the message for us as Republicans in the House is we cannot let ourselves get ahead of ourselves,” Cantor said. “There is certainly a business in this town; many people want to predict how many seats that we take back in November. I do think that we will reclaim the majority, but last night is evidence of the fact that we’ve got a lot of work to do and we just can’t get ahead of ourselves.”
Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, said he wasn’t discouraged by the Pennsylvania loss.
But he spoke for others in the House GOP Conference when he expressed regret over just how high the stakes had gotten in the contest for a seat held by a Democrat for 36 years.
“It snowballed into an expectations game that got out of hand,” Cole said.
Of the ads, he said: “It’s always dangerous when you try to do cookie-cutter stuff.”
California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is in charge of candidate recruitment for the NRCC, conceded that the $1 million-plus spent on the Pennsylvania special wasn’t well-spent.
“That’s a couple different things we’re going to have to analyze, because why does the polling show that we were close the whole time and then it not be close on election night?” McCarthy said on ABC’s “Top Line” program. “That’s a mistake on our part; that’s a mistake on our investment that we have to make a correction to.”
He said the commitee would “audit” its effort in the old Murtha seat.
Other Republicans, both inside and outside the Capitol, were as candid in acknowledging that they haven’t yet found the formula for victory.
“It is a wake-up call that we need to do better,” Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake said of the Pennsylvania results. “I still think it’s going to be a big year; the wind is blowing in our favor, but it’s a wake-up call.”
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz criticized the quality of the GOP’s campaign in the old Murtha district.
“You need to have a good grass-roots coalition. They didn’t,” Chaffetz said of Republican Tim Burns’s effort, adding: “30-second ads don’t win Republicans elections.”
Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who is running for governor, said that even though the environment may be in the GOP’s favor, the party still had to work to undo the damage done from its most recent time in the majority.
“Republicans still have to go out and earn that vote,” said Hoekstra. “They have to admit some mistakes from the past, and then we will have the opportunity to earn the right to lead again.”
What gave many Republicans comfort was that the Pennsylvania contest took place on the same day as the state’s high-profile Democratic Senate primary.
“There were many Democrats anxious to get to the polls to vote against [Republican-turned-Democrat Sen. Arlen] Specter,” Cole said, calling the special election “Arlen’s last revenge on us.”
But senior GOP strategists acknowledged that the loss in Pennsylvania had slowed, though not halted, the party’s momentum since Scott Brown’s Senate victory in January.
“Clearly, Democrats got a shot in the arm in terms of morale: They won a special they were worried about,” said former Minnesota GOP Rep. Vin Weber. “Their candidates learned they can take positions to separate themselves from Obama and Pelosi — and it appears to work.”
Republicans were pleased to see Souder quickly resign and happy to note that Democrats have had their share of scandal, but the Indiana congressman’s affair — which was accompanied by a damning video that was widely circulated on the Internet — was an aggravating reminder of one of the reasons they originally lost the majority.
“It does remind people of what happened to us in ’06,” Weber said.
Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and an influential voice in conservative circles, said the Pennsylvania special was “a reminder that candidates matter and consultants matter.”
The party committees and strategists overseeing races this year had to be careful about running “too conventional campaigns,” he said.
As for Kentucky, Kristol said Paul did amount to a risk but was also equivalent to Oliver North in the 1994 Virginia Senate race or Jeff Bell in the 1978 New Jersey Senate race: candidates who were not able to win general elections but represented a grass-roots fervor among conservatives that was important for the greater cause.
“When you get a lot of grass-roots excitement, you get some [primary] outcomes that if you were king of the world, you wouldn’t arrange,” Kristol said.
Overall, though, both Kristol and Weber said there was no cause for alarm.
“The Republican Party was in horrible shape in 2006 and 2008, and it hasn’t gone overnight into being a juggernaut,” he said. “There will be bumps and setbacks, but they’re in pretty good shape.”
Weber acknowledged that Tuesday had resulted in some shaken confidence.
“They’re disappointed and trying to figure out what they could have done differently,” he said of House GOP leaders. “But there’s still a lot of optimism. Control is still possible.”
But is it probable?
“I wouldn’t tilt that either way,” Weber shot back.