Republicans count enough competitive races to challenge Democrats for control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, if only they can figure out what to do with the tea party.
Crowded primaries in Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina, where social conservatives are fighting for the nomination and pushing candidates farther right, worry many Republicans, especially after they saw their legitimate shot at a Senate majority slip away in 2010 and 2012.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to capture control from Democrats, who hold a 55–45 advantage now. But Democrats will be defending 21 of 35 seats in November, and President Obama is looking like a major drag for them. Midterm elections are often tough for a president’s party in any event.
“History is with us, geography is with us and the president’s signature legislative achievement is the most unpopular” law of his tenure, said Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, of Obama and his health care overhaul.
Republicans speak confidently about snatching open seats in West Virginia and South Dakota. They like their chances against Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska and remain upbeat about Montana even if Gov. Steve Bullock names Lt. Gov. John Walsh to succeed Sen. Max Baucus, Obama’s choice for ambassador to China.
The question is whether Republicans undercut their shot with tea party-style candidates who fizzled out in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada in 2010 and Indiana and Missouri in 2012.
Georgia is keeping some Republicans awake at night. Eight candidates are pursuing the open seat of retiring two-term Sen. Saxby Chambliss in a state that dramatically went Republican in 1994 and rarely has looked back. Georgia hasn’t elected a non-incumbent Democrat since 1998.
The top Democratic hopeful is Michelle Nunn, CEO of the volunteer organization Points of Light and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. The younger Nunn’s diligence gets high marks from Democrats and Republicans. She has raised more than $1.7 million and campaigned with a purpose.
While more attention has focused on Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the marquee race of the cycle, Republicans say Nunn is the real deal. She stands as a moderate Democrat who could appeal to Georgia’s electorate and a Washington outsider in a year when congressional approval is in single digits.
Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, argued that the presence of the tea party in primaries is forcing all Republican candidates to race to the right. The result is nominees unacceptable in the general election, he said.
Several Republicans insist that establishment candidates will eventually prevail and the internal fights won’t matter as Democrats struggle with the most contentious issue of the year — Obama’s health care law — and the political damage from its many problems.
“I think it may be the most difficult political yoke to carry in the history of American politics,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “Where else do you have something that affects everybody? And health care does.”
Democrats don’t dispute that health care has hurt them.
“There’s no doubt Republicans are a little more gleeful,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster and adviser to North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who is seeking a second term. “Who can say with a straight face that this has not been a bad month for Democrats?”
But Anzalone added: “It’s not a permanent thing. This is really about the political environment nationally. It evens out.”