How Weak Candidates Could Cost the GOP Control of the Senate

Republican's best hope for Obamacare repeal is taking over the upper house, but underwhelming recruitment is making that a difficult task.

Ohio Treasurer and Senate candidate Josh Mandel has struggled in polls. (Associated Press)

Now that the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of President Obama's health-care law, conservatives are paying close attention to the composition of the Senate, knowing that their last chance to overturn the law is with a Republican president and a Senate majority.

But looking at the Senate landscape, the odds of Republicans taking back the upper chamber are no better than 50-50, even with more Democratic seats in play, a favorable political environment, and an energized GOP base. It's not the often-maligned Mitt Romney campaign that's going to drag down the ticket; it's several of the candidates themselves.

Indeed, in many key states where Romney is favored or running competitively, the Republican Party is saddled with candidates who have underwhelmed on the campaign trail. In Florida and Ohio, where the president's numbers are mediocre and Democratic senators are vulnerable, Republicans could miss out on golden opportunities. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states looking increasingly winnable for Romney, the Republican Senate challengers have been unable to exploit their opponents' vulnerabilities. Even in conservative North Dakota, the party backed a Republican member of Congress with enough baggage to make the race surprisingly competitive against a well-liked, well-known former Democratic state attorney general.

To be sure, Republicans have some solid Senate candidates. The party recruited several standouts, like former New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson and former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, who have put Democratic-leaning states in play. And Democrats face several of their own recruiting fumbles, including Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is now being investigated by the House Ethics Committee over whether she advanced legislation to benefit her husband's business. But if Republicans fail to take the Senate, it's going to be because of the glaring missed opportunities in the perennial battlegrounds and Republican-leaning states. If 2010 was the year the Tea Party cost the GOP several winnable seats, then 2012 could be the year Republicans' own candidates cost them control of the Senate.

Compare this cycle's recruits with their counterparts from the 2010 freshman Senate class, which includes three vice presidential prospects for Romney -- Rob Portman of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire -- plus Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and John Hoeven of North Dakota. Much attention focused on the weak Tea Party-aligned candidates who lost last year, like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada. But overall, the National Republican Senatorial Committee recruited a strong and deep roster of candidates in the last cycle.

This year, the corresponding group of candidates is Josh Mandel, Rep. Connie Mack IV, Rep. Rick Berg, and Tom Smith, whose resumes pale compared to their 2010 counterparts.

Mandel, the Republican standard-bearer in Ohio, is an example of a candidate whose promise hasn't matched his performance. Party officials recruited the highly-touted state treasurer and encouraged him to enter the race very early so he could raise as much money as possible to keep financial pace with Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown's flush campaign account. In hindsight, Mandel's decision to jump in before he was politically ready was a significant miscalculation.

Despite filing papers to become a Senate candidate back in June 2011, Mandel studiously avoided the press during his exploratory phase, and ended up alienating many of the reporters assigned to cover him. He's gotten relentlessly bad press as a 31-year-old newbie who neglected his duties as treasurer to run for the Senate, and his campaign team has been flat-footed in handling damage control.

When Mandel took an unannounced trip to the Bahamas in March to raise money from payday lenders, the speech earned him a slew of bad headlines and gave Brown fodder for future campaign ads. With millions of dollars of super PAC money being spent on the race already, the relentless fundraising pace was probably unnecessary, and it came at the expense of a bunch of negative headlines back home. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows Mandel losing ground to Brown, and his unfavorables going up. If Romney carries the battleground state but Mandel falls short, it will be a serious missed opportunity for Republicans.

Florida is another state that is looking promising for Romney but challenging for Senate Republicans. The expected nominee is Mack, whose campaign has gotten off to a shaky start. He has struggled to win over the conservative rank-and-file, and has been openly criticized by the Florida GOP consultant class. His fundraising is are weak and not expected to improve with the release of his second-quarter numbers this month. Florida Republican insiders argue that the political environment is so tough for Democrats that Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson should be almost as vulnerable as Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Jon Tester in Montana. Even as polling shows Nelson running slightly ahead of Mack, the pessimism in GOP circles about the challenger's campaign is palpable.

Meanwhile, in North Dakota, a contest once viewed as a shoo-in now looks like a surprisingly competitive race between Berg and former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp. The latest independent poll from Mason Dixon, conducted in June, shows Heitkamp leading Berg, 47 percent to 46 percent, a result consistent with internal polling on both sides. Crossroads GPS has spent nearly $1 million to bolster Berg's campaign in a race it hadn't expected to focus on.

Republicans credit the closeness of the contest to Heitkamp's personal likability and are optimistic that Berg will ultimately prevail once voters learn more about her views. But North Dakota is a famously close-knit state where voters know their representatives well and support their preferred candidate over straight-ticket voting. For many years, until 2008, the state boasted an all-Democratic congressional delegation even as it handily supported Republicans at the presidential level.

Like Mandel, Berg has taken heat for angling for a promotion so quickly after winning the House seat. His unfavorable ratings are unusually high for a first-term representative, in part because he's had trouble connecting with voters -- a "grocery-store problem," as one Democratic strategist working on the race put it. His support of the budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin could hurt him in a state with one of the highest concentration of senior citizens in the country. All told, the race is closer than anyone expected it to be.

Finally, Michigan and Pennsylvania were never considered first-tier opportunities for the GOP, but if there was a year to defeat Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Bob Casey, this would be it. Both are saddled with politically unpopular votes on health care and energy policy, and both states are chock full of white, blue-collar voters disillusioned with President Obama. Romney could win both states. But Stabenow and Casey remain in solid shape, thanks to their opponents' lackluster campaigns.

In Michigan, former Rep. Pete Hoekstra kicked off his campaign on a down note, airing a Super Bowl ad attacking Stabenow on spending that was widely panned for being racially insensitive - and his campaign has struggled to regain its footing since. A June EPIC/MRA poll showed Obama and Romney in a dead heat, but with Stabenow leading Hoekstra by 12 percentage points, 49 percent to 37 percent. He also faces a competitive primary against Clark Durant, who has a fighting chance at an upset, and could make a better general election candidate.

In Pennsylvania, Casey still holds solid favorable ratings, but the political terrain seems welcoming for a credible GOP challenger who could exploit Obama's weaknesses. The party's nominee, Tom Smith, has the ability to self-finance to the tune of millions of dollars but has done little advertising, and he doesn't have the political skill set that, say, a Rep. Pat Meehan would bring to the table.

Even with these limitations, Republicans still have even odds to retake control because Democrats are defending more seats, with many races taking place in conservative states. The GOP is favored to pick up seats in Nebraska and Missouri, and has advantages in Montana and North Dakota, thanks to the states' Republican leanings. There are a sufficient number of open-seat races to tip the balance in Republicans' favor. That could be all that's necessary to win a Senate majority if Romney wins and the party manages to hold onto nearly all of its own seats. But it's an awfully narrow margin for error, which could have been prevented with a few good candidates to run against vulnerable Democratic senators.