Why Republicans Can't Catch a Break

For every opportunity, Senate GOP has suffered setbacks in the last week.

Christie: Many things to weigh. (National Journal)

The tale of the Republican efforts to take back the Senate in 2014 reads like the story of Pat in the movie "Silver Linings Playbook." They've been presented numerous opportunities "“ a charismatic Hispanic candidate emerging in Massachusetts, an unexpected chance to compete in New Jersey, several timely retirements from Democratic senators in battleground states "“ but haven't yet caught enough lucky breaks to exploit them. The party is desperately looking for a silver lining somewhere, a sign the majority is well within reach, but it hasn't yet emerged.

In just over a day, Republicans lost a once-tantalizing opportunity in New Jersey. Chris Christie's decision to hold the New Jersey special Senate election three weeks before this year's general election "“ soon after the passing of Sen. Frank Lautenberg -- was the worst-case scenario for national Republicans, who had hoped the governor would hold off on a race until next year's midterms so they could groom a newly appointed incumbent. What could have evolved into a potential GOP pickup opportunity is now a likely Democratic victory.

For Senate Republicans, the Garden State disappointment was just their latest near-miss. A deluge of recent developments have cast doubt about the GOP's chances at victory in a battery of possible battlegrounds. And they're underscoring the difficulty facing a party that needs nearly everything to go right if it wants to claim the six seats necessary for a majority in 2014.

"This will be a good year for Republicans," said Republican strategist Mike Hudome. "I don't think we'll win the majority, but it'll be a good year."

A break has yet to arrive in Massachusetts, where Republican Gabriel Gomez has run a competitive race against Democrat Ed Markey but has yet to break through. Gomez's youth and relative lack of political experience "“ especially compared with the 36-year congressman Markey "“ made for a potent contrast between the two men, and early polls showed a competitive race.

But a negative TV campaign tightly focused on Gomez's Republican positions on guns and abortion have reversed his momentum, and polls that once indicated a narrow contest have widened three weeks before the June 25 election. Gomez's performance at Wednesday night's debate didn't play to his advantage. Barring a significant shakeup, Markey will enter Election Day as the favorite.

In another blue state, Republicans received mixed news when former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land declared she was running for the open Senate seat there. Land is the first credible GOP candidate to enter the race, but her entrance suggests the party's top recruitment target, Rep. Mike Rogers, will not launch a campaign. Democrats view the veteran congressman as the GOP's only hope of making the blue state "“ one that hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1994 "“ competitive next year. Land might yet do that, but the Wolverine State is hostile ground for GOP Senate candidates.

And in Alaska, Joe Miller's entrance last week into the GOP field is a major stumbling block for Republicans as they try to field a strong candidate to take down Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. Polls show Begich is beatable, but the presence of an outspoken, archconservative bombthrower like Miller could badly hurt the party's chances. At the least, it complicates the path to the nomination for more mainstream candidates, like Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell

Individually, the events aren't decisive. Republicans struggling in deep-blue states like Massachusetts and New Jersey is nothing new, and the GOP has survived tough primaries before. But their collective weight matters for a party with little margin for error "“ they needs to avoid squandering opportunities and capture an unlikely seat or two. They've been successful targeting the seven Romney states represented by Democrats, one more than is necessary for a majority, but to sweep all those states is unlikely. If former Gov. Brian Schweitzer declares a candidacy in Montana, he enters the race as a favorite.

"They need every break," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who works closely with Senate races. "And they're not getting every break."

The news hasn't been all good for Democrats, either. They've been beset by setbacks in Republican-friendly West Virginia and South Dakota. Attorney Nick Preservati on Monday surprisingly passed on a campaign in the Mountain State, and it's unclear who else from the Democratic Party might run for the seat held by retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller. In South Dakota, both U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin have passed on a campaign, leaving little-known former Tom Daschle aide Rick Weiland as the only Democrat in the race.

The Democrats' recruitment strategy has "imploded," according to National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen.

"Senate Democrats are entirely on defense in 2014 across the map, having to defend too many incumbents with weak numbers," she said. "It takes twice as much energy to play defense than it does execute on offense, and national Democrats will play this cycle entirely on the defensive."

Republicans also urge patience with an election cycle still in its infancy. The party believes it will eventually land solid candidate against Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, Al Franken in Minnesota, and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire. Even a nasty Democratic primary fight between Newark Mayor Cory Booker and several congressmen in New Jersey could crack the door open for a Republican.

"This is a cycle where there are a lot of crock pots that have to cook for a long time before we see something," said Republican strategist Dan Hazelwood.