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Could Tea Party challengers save Senate Democrats?

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Opinion Zone,Christopher Murray

As the landscape of the 2012 Senate elections begins to clarify, Republicans have ample opportunities to expand on their gains from 2010 and move toward consolidating their House majority with one across the capitol.  With only ten seats to defend, the GOP enters next year on the offensive with several pickup chances in states with a history of voting Republican—North Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska to name three.  However, before national Republicans can begin re-arranging the desks on the Senate floor, they must first concern themselves with whether intra-party divisions will deny them the ultimate prize. 

With the announcement by Virginia Democrat Jim Webb that he will forego a re-election campaign in 2012, Republicans’ chances at gaining a majority in the Senate increased noticeably.  As Republican George Allen seeks to regain the seat for the GOP, it would appear as if Virginia is prepared to move more solidly back into the Republican column, especially when coupled with the election of Governor Bob McDonnell in 2009.  While Virginia and national Democrats would love to see former governor and current DNC chair Tim Kaine enter the race, he has to this point been mum on whether he will throw his hat into the ring.  With Webb’s announcement, he will surely be pressured to make a decision, and quickly.

While the GOP’s chances seem brighter today, what may complicate matters not only in Virginia, but in some other states as well, is a repeat of last year’s Tea Party driven primary challenges.  When GOP stalwarts like Robert Bennett in Utah and Mike Castle in Delaware were knocked off prior to the general election, establishment Republicans were caught off guard.  While Republicans held on to their seat in Utah, the loss of Delaware brought about rounds of finger pointing and recriminations.  It now seems as if many of those running in 2012 are taking steps to insulate themselves against challenges from the right flank to make sure that history isn’t repeated. 

While Allen has been modern Virginia’s most successful GOP figure, gaining election to the House and Governor’s mansion in addition to the Senate, his path back to Washington is being hampered by a primary challenge from Tea Party Patriots Federation co-founder Jamie Radtke.   If Radtke is able to damage Allen in the nomination fight—or even pull off a surprise victory—it could be enough to propel a candidate like Kaine into the Senate.  Some recently released polling suggests that Allen’s popularity in the state is not as high as he might like going into the race.  While Democrats suffered in Virginia in 2009 and 2010, the mobilization efforts sure to be undertaken in a presidential election year make holding Webb’s seat a distinct possibility.

A handful of other states are also witnessing a burgeoning Tea Party challenge to longstanding GOP incumbents.  While two of these states don’t appear at first glance to be Democratic pickup opportunities, should the incumbent fall they do bear watching.  In Indiana, Richard Lugar has gained attention recently for his pointed criticism of Hoosier State Tea Partiers.  Long a force of moderation and realism within the Republican caucus, Lugar has drawn ire for his support of the START Treaty and his willingness to support President Obama’s judicial nominees.  Lugar’s electoral prominence in Indiana is staggering, having received only token opposition throughout his six terms.  His primary defeat, should it be coupled with a credible Democratic nominee, could act as a Democratic firewall.  Given the success that Obama had in the traditionally Republican state in 2008, one would expect Democrats to go all out to capture this seat.

Taking a more conciliatory—and some would argue pandering—approach to local Tea Partiers is Utah’s Orrin Hatch.  No doubt seeing his colleague Bennett’s humiliation last year has scared Hatch straight.  Hatch has been courting local and national Tea Party leaders and this week attended a DC Tea Party pow-wow, although there are questions as to how much his presence was welcomed.  With a record on immigration, health care, and spending that makes him a potential target, Hatch has been bending over backward to reframe his record in light of the current party dynamics.  For his critics and those with a long memory or ready access to Google, his performance and underlying logic has verged on comical.  Unlike Virginia or Indiana, however, it’s hard to see how a Hatch defeat for re-nomination could bolster the Democrats.  The last time Utah elected a Democratic senator was in 1970 when they re-elected Frank Moss to his third term.  Interestingly, he lost his seat to Hatch six years later.

Perhaps the most tantalizing opportunity for Democrats to gain a seat at the hands of Tea Party inspired meddling is in Maine.  With strong independent support as well as strength among Democrats,Olympia Snowe would seem invincible unless taken down from the right.  With success in capturing the governorship as well as both houses of the state legislature, Snowe is an attractive target for Tea Party elements seeking a more ideologically pure senator.  Complicating matters for Democrats, however, is the fact that newly elected Governor, and Tea Party darling, Paul LePage has already endorsed Snowe’s re-election.  To this point, the various factions in the Maine Tea Party movement haven’t coalesced around a challenger to Snowe, and may prove unable to, especially if there is no help coming from the top.  What could result, though, is a repeat of last year’s events in Delaware where outside groups decided to use the state as a laboratory for the movement’s efforts—to disastrous results for national Republicans as Democrats snagged an unexpected victory.  Given the state’s small size, and thus relatively low campaign costs, this scenario surely makes Democrats salivate.

Obviously, none of these scenarios is guaranteed to transpire.  Thus, Democrats will continue to face a daunting task to maintain hold of their Senate majority.  Nevertheless, history always suggests that predicting electoral outcomes twenty months in advance is a dangerous game.  With such a large playing field to defend, Democrats will surely seek to take advantage of mischief making from the far right.  With Democratic turnout sure to increase in the midst of an Obama re-election campaign, they may be able to fend off further losses.

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