Why Can't Republicans Get Any Decent Candidates to Run in Swing States?

The GOP should have a big rebound in 2014. But in Colorado and Virginia, it's fielding weak candidates -- or none at all.
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Virginia Republican lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson has already proven controversial. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

For all the lip service given by Republicans to the party's efforts to modernize its image, a quick look at the GOP's standing in two must-win battlegrounds doesn't paint a promising picture of their efforts. In Colorado and Virginia -- the archetypes of suburban, demographically changing states -- Republicans are barely contesting next year's Senate races, are facing fresh setbacks in the two pivotal upcoming gubernatorial races, and are dealing with persistent issues recruiting new talent into the pipeline.

The most glaring example took place earlier this month in Virginia, where Republican Party leaders nominated for lieutenant governor E.W. Jackson, a minister whose thunderous opposition to gay marriage and invective against President Obama threaten to damage the Republican ticket. His emergence was enabled by party leaders opting to choose their statewide candidates at a convention filled with single-issue activists instead of through a primary involving a wider swath of Republican voters. The party's gubernatorial nominee, Ken Cuccinelli, who engineered the convention process, is trying to downplay his socially conservative background, but is struggling to do so with his new ticketmate. Meanwhile, Republicans are empty-handed in next year's Senate race against Sen. Mark Warner, not even entertaining the notion that term-limited Gov. Bob McDonnell could follow in his predecessor's footsteps and pursue a congressional career.

Less noticed, but equally as damaging, is the party's persistent inability to contest statewide races in Colorado, which is rapidly becoming a Democratic-leaning state -- in large part because of GOP mismanagement. The party's brightest recruit, Rep. Cory Gardner, just opted to pass up a Senate campaign against Mark Udall, leaving the GOP empty-handed. Even more startling is the reemergence of immigration hardliner Tom Tancredo as a legitimate gubernatorial candidate, jumping in the race this month against Gov. John Hickenlooper. (Tancredo won 36 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate in 2010.) If Republicans can't contest the Senate and governorship in 2014, it would mark eight straight setbacks in presidential, Senate, and gubernatorial contests dating back nearly a decade. An 0-8 record would get the Denver Broncos coach fired, but there hasn't been a comparable shakeup in the state party's practices in a long time.

These swing states are important precisely because they contain significant and growing numbers of the rising American electorate -- Hispanics, single women, and young, college-educated voters -- that are necessary for Republicans to win over for their long-term health. The party's favorable short-term prospects in 2014 -- a path to a Senate majority can be won in exclusively Republican states -- could easily blind Republicans to the long-term vulnerabilities it faces.

What's remarkable is that these swing-state setbacks are taking place in what's shaping up to be a promising political environment for Republicans. The off-year electorate, on paper, should be more conservative than in 2012, with younger voters and minorities less likely to show up for a midterm election. The scent of scandal threatens to weigh down Democrats over the next year. The implementation of Obama's health care law, polling as poorly as ever, will be taking place right as the midterms begin in earnest. This is the stuff that should be catnip for prospective GOP recruits.

But instead we're hearing crickets in these two Senate races, not to mention a handful of other battleground contests (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Hampshire) where Republicans should be faring better. It's awfully telling that Republican Senate candidates have already lined up in many of the deeply conservative states up for grabs, but there's comparably little movement elsewhere. Talk about two Americas.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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