By rights, in 2010 the GOP should have taken control of the U.S. Senate and run Harry Reid not just out of the majority leader’s office but out of office altogether. But by nominating far-right, incompetent extremists such as Sharron Angle to run against Reid in Nevada, and Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell to run in Delaware, they blew that golden chance.
The 2012 cycle, with Republicans defending only 10 seats and the Democrats having to defend 23, offered an even better opportunity to retake the Senate. Once again, though, the GOP seems to be blowing it. As recently as Aug. 19, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com was giving the Republicans a 61.5 percent chance of winning a Senate majority; today, he gives them a 9.1 percent chance of achieving that goal.
Why that collapse in their Senate chances, especially since in roughly that same time frame, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has resurrected his campaign and given himself a real shot at victory? The answer tells us a lot.
Romney, you may recall, pretended to be “severely conservative” in the primaries and is now pretending to be perfectly moderate and reasonable. (If it sounds odd to describe him as pretending in both cases, it’s nonetheless accurate. Trying to establish Romney’s true political belief system is like trying to determine the true color of a chameleon. It always depends. His natural state is pretense.)
However, that is not a gift given to every politician. Republican Senate candidates such as Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri really are severely conservative; their half-hearted efforts to pretend to be moderates simply are not convincing, and as a result the Republicans could end up losing two Senate seats that were once considered all but guaranteed.
Elsewhere, GOP Senate nominees in once-winnable states such as Florida and Ohio are also failing to perform and are falling short of Romney’s polling numbers in their states. Unlike their party’s standard bearer, they haven’t been able to sell themselves effectively to more moderate general-election voters.
Some of that’s due to the difference between state and national races. At the state level, voters have watched the candidates over their entire careers, so sudden shifts in ideology are more difficult. But it is also true that Republican primaries have become nothing more than tests of ideological purity, won by the candidate most willing to embrace every whim of the party base. That process attracts a certain type of candidate and discourages other types of candidates from even making the effort.
It is possible that we will see that scenario play out here in Georgia two years from now, when the six-year term of Sen. Saxby Chambliss expires. Chambliss has been spotted on occasion keeping company with senators not of his own party. He has publicly suggested that as part of a larger deal to attack the federal deficit, conservatives may be forced to accept revenue increases. And as the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he has been relatively moderate in his comments on the death of our ambassador in Libya, the current cause celebre among conservatives.
Those occasional waverings aside, Chambliss does have strong conservative credentials: The American Conservative Union gives him a 96 percent conservative rating; the Eagle Forum gives him a 100 percent rating. But these days, scores like that don’t even make Chambliss one of the Senate’s 15 most conservative members, according to the definitive National Journal rankings.
On the other hand, nobody but nobody gets to the right of Tom Price, the ambitious Republican congressman from Marietta said to be eying a run at Chambliss. According to National Journal, Price is tied with nine others as the most conservative member in the House, and when you consider how conservative the House Republican caucus is, that’s saying something.
It also tells you something about Georgia’s Republican Party that two of the nine congressmen who are tied with Price as most conservative — Lynn Westmoreland and Phil Gingrey — are also from the Peach State. In many states, there wouldn’t be room to run to the right of Chambliss. In Georgia, there is.
It’s impossible to speculate accurately about the political climate two years from now, in part because so much depends on what happens Nov. 6. But it is conceivable that if a bitter primary battle develops between Price and Chambliss, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed would be drawn into the race to take on the survivor.
Again, this is pure speculation. Here at home, Reed has cast himself as a strongly pro-business, moderate Democrat eager to work with Republicans to get things done not just for metro Atlanta but for the state. But with his national TV appearances as a sharp-tongued surrogate for Barack Obama, Reed has tied himself closely to a man deemed little short of the devil in much of Georgia.
In other words, Reed would still be at a significant disadvantage in a 2014 Senate race. But if he has electoral ambitions beyond a House seat, he’s going to have to embrace that underdog role at some point, and he also understands that waiting and sticking around as mayor has its risks. Full second terms in that office are often not kind to a politician’s reputation.
And as the record shows nationally, Republican primary battles have a way of creating opportunity for Democrats that otherwise would not be available.
– Jay Bookman