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If there's been a single theme to this primary season – which concludes next week – it's been this: Republicans got the candidates they wanted, increasing their chances of retaking the Senate in November.
Maybe more importantly, the party avoided nominating the kinds of candidates that cost the GOP in the last two elections.
No Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell. No Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. No Sharron Angle.
“We squandered a lot of opportunities, because we had unelectable candidates,” says Paul Lindsay, a spokesman at the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, a Republican Super PAC.
But here’s something to chew on: What if Republicans come up short on Election Day, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility? And in this environment where President Obama’s approval rating stands in the low 40s?
Then you can’t simply blame the Christine O’Donnells and Todd Akins anymore.
Establishment beats back the Tea Party
This election season, GOP establishment-backed candidates like Dan Sullivan in Alaska, David Perdue in Georgia and Thom Tillis in North Carolina beat opponents with links to the Tea Party.
In Arkansas and Colorado, respectively, Republicans cleared the field for two sitting congressmen, Tom Cotton and Cory Gardner.
They got the candidates they wanted, that doesn’t mean they got good candidates
And despite a scare in Mississippi, the GOP saw all of its incumbent senators win their primaries – when a loss could have helped Democrats.
“I am surprised that no incumbent senator lost a primary,” says Nathan Gonzales, an analyst at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
A couple of factors helped Republicans.
For starters, deep-pocketed outside groups like American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported candidates it considered the most electable in November, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee aided the vulnerable incumbents.
“I think the NRSC deserves credit,” Gonzales contends. “Pat Roberts [in Kansas] and Thad Cochran [in Mississippi] – those campaigns needed some hand-holding.”
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In addition, the Tea Party was unable to recruit or coalesce around challengers who could have won their primaries.
“I don’t think the anti-establishment fervor out there has dissipated,” Gonzales adds. “The right candidates weren’t there to take advantage of that sentiment.”
So Republicans got their favored men and women in the key Senate races. But Democrats argue that they’re hardly sure bets to win November.
“They got the candidates they wanted, that doesn’t mean they got good candidates,” says Ty Matsdorf, a strategist with Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic Super PAC focusing on key Senate races.
Indeed, Democrats believe the GOP nominees are more conservative than the states they’re trying to represent:
- In Arkansas, Cotton voted against the farm bill and voted in favor of the legislation that precipitated the government shutdown from last year;
- In Colorado, Gardner had supported so-called “personhood measures" – which declares a fertilized egg a person, thus barring some kinds of contraception – but now opposes them;
- In Iowa, GOP nominee Joni Ernst suggested that House Republicans could proceed with impeaching President Obama and doesn’t see proof that climate change is man-made;
- And in North Carolina, Tillis opposes raising the federal minimum wage.
Is tone the problem? Or is it ideology?
According to Lindsay of American Crossroads, the GOP establishment-vs.-Tea Party fight has been more about tone than ideology. In other words, these Republican nominees are definitely conservatives – they’re just not going to say things that would embarrass the party and hurt their chances in November.
And if the GOP wins the Senate in November, then that would be a key reason why. Instead of Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin and Sharron Angle, they simply got more electable candidates.
But what if they still lose? Then they lost because they were too conservative, Matsdorf argues, which he says would trigger an ideological debate inside the party.
Does it need to become more moderate?
“Then you have to have your come-to-Jesus moment,” he says.