Why Senate Races Are Competitive: Republicans

Every vector in this midterm, every sign and signal, points to a crushing loss for Democrats on November 2, perhaps the biggest and quickest loss of a House majority in a generation. (The Dems lost 52 seats in 1994.) 

On the theory that, when the House goes, the Senate usually goes too, Republicans are certainly capable of picking up the Senate seats necessary to take control. Minimally, the GOP will net five seats. Maximally, they'll net 11. If there's such thing as an iron law in politics, it's that wave elections are wave elections. When one chamber goes, the other tends to fall, too.

It's common wisdom now that Republican primary voters revolted against the more mainstream, centrist candidates chosen by party leaders and selected purer, less adulterated versions of the conservative id. In states where there are plenty of competitive races for other seats, more right-of-center Republican Senate candidates won't suffer as much because party turnout will be high, conservative-leaning independents will be motivated, and independents will show up and vote Republican.

But there are enough states with unique political environments -- and terribly unorthodox Republicans -- that the GOP can't count on the wave pushing some of the more outre Tea Party candidates across the finish line.

Kentucky -- see here. I discussed that race yesterday.

In Alaska, Delaware, and West Virginia, the Republican Senate candidates keep tripping over themselves, trying valiantly to maintain their core identity as movement conservatives while attracting enough votes from independents.

But in Delaware, Christine O'Donnell remains unpopular among many Republicans because she is simply not seen as a credible senator for the state. In Alaska, the state Republican establishment is split into two, with Lisa Murkowski running a write-in candidacy. The Democrat, Scott McAdams, is actually moving to within striking distance, picking up ground because Republican nominee Joe Miller can't seem to get his past out of his present.

In West Virginia, John Raese has shot off at the hip one too many times, and Joe Manchin, his opponent, is running a very solid race. West Virginia also has two competitive House races (in CD 1 and CD 3), but Democratic candidates are holding their own.

In Delaware, Democrats are probably going to win retiring Rep. Mike Castle's at-large seat. In Alaska, there are no House races of note. The governors races in those states aren't particularly polarizing. There are no major ballot initiatives capable of driving turnout. So the Republican candidate is on his or her own, hoping the national environment pushes them over the top. 

In Nevada, where Sharron Angle is having trouble distinguishing Asians from Hispanics, several other races are competitive. The only thing keeping her in the race is that Harry Reid is her opponent. (Her campaign staff is actually doing a good job in tough circumstances, having figured out early that spending a lot of money to hammer Harry Reid into the ground was a preferable strategy to waiting until October. This worked.) But the race is a toss-up, and if Angle loses, it's ... well, not because Harry Reid won.

In Colorado, as much as Democrats want to turn Ken Buck, who sees homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, maybe, into Christine O'Donnell, they face larger problems. There are several competitive House races, a competitive gubernatorial race where Tom Tancredo is turning out conservatives, and the lack of attachment independent suburbanites have to Democrat Michael Bennet, who, in any other cycle, would cruise to re-election. (Disclosure: Bennet is the brother of Atlantic editor James Bennet.) Buck can't afford to put social issues on the table, because Democrats will feast on them.

The general point is that at least three Senate races are very competitive and two are generally competitive, and the reason alone is that the Republican candidate in each instance is not ideal, and may be having trouble ideologically -- just as the dreaded establishment predicted they would. It's easier to send a message in Senate primaries (in which three incumbents -- the most in any year since ... a long time -- lost) and in House races than it is in general Senate elections. Then again, perhaps the wave will be high enough.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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