2012 brings bevy of bumbling candidates
It took a catastrophic, unforced error from a major U.S. Senate nominee to prove the point: In 2012, candidate quality matters - a lot.
After three consecutive wave elections - the Democratic landslides of 2006 and 2008 and the Republican revolution of 2010 - both parties have rapidly remembered that they can't always count on a national tide to sweep their candidates into office. In those cycles, an array of sub-par candidates managed to win largely on the strength of their party label, from lackluster campaigners like Virginia Democrat Jim Webb to offbeat ideologues like Kentucky Republican Rand Paul.
This year, the battle for control of the Senate has turned into a far more muddled and unpredictable affair because there's no overwhelming national tide. While Democrats started out back on their heels, defending 23 seats to the GOP's 10, the unexpected weakness of several Republican candidates has left Republicans far short of the easy takeover that some once anticipated.
On both sides, political missteps and candidate defects have reshaped the map in surprising ways. The most astounding example came this week, when Missouri Rep. Todd Akin threw his Senate candidacy into a state of crisis by suggesting that rape victims can stop themselves from becoming pregnant.
Akin has since apologized for the remark, but a long list of Republicans have pressured him to end his campaign and salvage the GOP's chances of knocking off Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
But Akin is not the only bumbling candidate to befoul his party's grand 2012 strategy. Republican strategists have voiced dismay for weeks over the Senate contest in North Dakota, where GOP Rep. Rick Berg was expected to dominate the race but instead finds himself tied or trailing Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, a sympathetic former state attorney general. On the other side, Democrats find themselves struggling to gain traction in Nevada after Rep. Shelley Berkley, the party's nominee, found herself embroiled in an ethics investigation in the House of Representatives.
The list of flaws and flubs goes on: Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senate nominee in strongly liberal Massachusetts, spun out a biographical flap about whether she has Cherokee heritage into a controversy that hobbled her for much of the summer. In Indiana, conservative state Treasurer Richard Mourdock has failed to establish a lead over Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in the aftermath of a slashing GOP primary that turned off moderate voters.
If both parties have suffered from candidate malpractice in 2012, the brunt of the damage seems to have fallen on Republicans. With more than half a dozen credible takeover opportunities, many of them in conservative-leaning states, today only one Democratic-held seat looks like a sure thing for the GOP: the one currently occupied by retiring Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson.
Now, with 11 weeks to Election Day, Republican and Democratic strategists have begun to reflect on the reality that these races really might come down to the tactics and performance of individual candidates. And Republicans are starting to fume that the party may have jeopardized a historic opportunity.
"For all the criticism of professional politicians, there's something to be said for being a professional politician and knowing what you're doing," said Republican super-strategist Mike Murphy, who said the Akin debacle was enough to make one yearn for the age when "bosses were in charge of making sure that things are kept under control."
"Forget about the disgusting premise of [Akin's] statement, when you commit an act of candidate incompetence, it's totally justified to ask if you want that person to carry the standard," Murphy said. "The parties are weaker now so they can't discipline. Primary voters can run amok."
If candidate and campaign quality matter immensely in the 2012 cycle, it's not as though the performance of individual nominees hasn't been decisive at other times over the past half-decade. Democrats came just shy of winning a Tennessee Senate seat in 2006, when Republican Bob Corker outfoxed Democrat Harold Ford and drove the up-and-coming congressman to pull up stakes and leave the Volunteer State. In the 2010 Republican wave, nominating ideologically extreme - and in some cases, downright kooky - candidates denied the party Senate seats in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada.
"Candidates always matter. Even in wave elections like 2010, you saw a handful of races where the wave was stopped, in part because of the quality of the candidates," said Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee. "This ain't a wave election, which means that the candidate quality matters even more. Candidates that are that out of touch with the electorate, they just can't get very far in election years like this."
Republican media consultant Curt Anderson said the party left Senate "seats on the table" two years ago "by nominating terrible candidates in Nevada and Colorado," and said the GOP would have to be more aggressive about recruiting compelling nominees in the future.
"We've got to get out of the business of nominating the next congressman whose turn it is," Anderson said.
Taking corrective action is easier said than done. Both parties seek to goad their strongest candidates into Senate races. This year, they've had some success at stretching the map by recruiting impressive contenders for long-shot races: Republicans persuaded former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle to take a shot at her state's open Senate seat, while Democrats are putting up former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a decorated Vietnam veteran, in Arizona.
In an ever more democratized political age, parties also risk backlash if they meddle too overtly in an activist-dominated nominating process. And they pay a price when, as in Akin's case, a more vulnerable candidate comes out on top in a primary.
If Republicans couldn't stop Akin and other feeble candidates from winning their party's primaries, the national GOP is bringing down the hammer now. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has indicated that it will not put money into the Missouri Senate race this fall if Akin stays on the ballot, while the conservative independent expenditure group Crossroads GPS canceled a set of TV reservations there.
In a statement Monday, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn called Akin's offending comments "indefensible" and sent a none-too-subtle message that he should step back from the race.
"I recognize that this is a difficult time for him, but over the next 24 hours, Congressman Akin should carefully consider what is best for him, his family, the Republican Party, and the values that he cares about and has fought for throughout his career in public service," Cornyn said.
However the Akin situation shakes out, J.B. Poersch, the former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, sounded an upbeat note in an email Monday musing over the GOP's field of recruits.
"The tea party has boxed Cornyn in from doing any real recruiting. Heitkamp and [Montana Sen. Jon] Tester and Donnelly are better candidates. They just are," he said.
One Republican acknowledged that "the world order is different these days," explaining: "If there's any lesson that anyone learned from 2010, it cannot be seen as Washington hand-picking the candidates."
Akin has given little indication so far that he intends to withdraw, and it's too soon to say whether his remarks about rape will leave him doomed against McCaskill. Still, Republicans sounded a despairing note about the state of the Senate map this week and there's broad consensus in Washington that the party's path to a majority has grown slimmer over the last year.
"It's a big freakin' disaster," said one frustrated strategist, who said Akin was only the most flagrant example of political malfeasance. "We just have a bad crop right now, of candidates, who are running bad campaigns."
The Akin example is particularly galling to some Republicans because of the way he emerged as their nominee; he got a late boost in a three-way primary when McCaskill aired commercials attacking him as "too conservative" - not exactly a turnoff to primary voters.
That revived memories of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's successful campaign to tear down his more formidable 2010 opponents and make Sharron Angle, an eccentric and politically amateurish former state legislator, the GOP's exceedingly beatable nominee.
"When liberals are helping a Republican in the primary, there's a strategic reason," said Florida-based GOP strategist Brian Hughes. "Akin wasted no time proving that McCaskill's team made an excellent investment. Republicans should either find a way to replace him, or the party should focus its resources on other Senate races."