If Republicans fall short on Election Day on their bid to seize control of the US Senate – a plum that not too long ago looked to be within easy reach – the recriminations will be loud and the finger-pointing furious. A likely big target of any internal GOP fury? Tea party conservatives.
Critics would point first to Senate races in Indiana and Missouri as Exhibits A and B for golden opportunities squandered by tea party missteps. In each contest, the GOP nominees, both of whom boast tea party backing, began with big leads that have drained away over the course of their campaigns. In Indiana, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock is in a nail-biter with Rep. Joe Donnelly (D), and in Missouri, polls show GOP Rep. Todd Akin is almost certain to lose to the incumbent Democrat once considered the most vulnerable of all, Sen. Claire McCaskill.
But "blame the tea party" is a familiar refrain – first heard after the GOP left some prize Senate seats on the ground during its big sweep of the 2010 midterm election – and not everyone is ready to buy it this time around.
“What ends up happening is a lot of observers, even those who are not totally clueless about politics ... are probably subsuming Akin and maybe some other conservative examples under the tea party banner, even though there’s not a direct link,” says political scientist Brian Calfano at Missouri State University in Springfield.
Republicans need to take four seats from Democrats to win control of the Senate, and twice as many Democratic seats are up for grabs this year as Republican seats.
Tea party defenders, for their part, say the Senate outcome can't be pinned on just one or two races. And they are looking around the country and noting establishment candidates locked in tight Senate races on Republican turf in North Dakota and Montana. If the GOP loses those seats, they ask, whose fault is that? They look, too, at candidates lauded by the Republican establishment who never gained traction, like former Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico, and ask, What happened there?
Democrats, moreover, have mustered strong candidates for races like Indiana.
Considering those factors, the argument that conservatives cost the party a Senate majority in 2012 “is a very selective narrative,” says Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a fiscally conservative group that helped prevent Sen. Bob Bennett (R) of Utah from winning the party nomination in 2010.
But some party regulars continue to see problems stemming from the influence of the far right on the nominating process.
"You can go back to the last cycle [in 2010] in Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware, in the Republican primaries where we elected the least-electable Republican. You've got a couple this time in Missouri and Indiana" where the GOP nominee snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory, says former Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, who previously served as chairman of the party’s group devoted to electing Republicans to the House. "This would be five Senate seats basically we've blown by just nominating the least-electable candidates."
"Candidates matter," says Mr. Davis, and the Republican Party does not "have any enforcement mechanism to bring your strongest candidates to bear."
There is no question that Mr. Mourdock in Indiana and Mr. Akin in Missouri have hurt the GOP this cycle. What's up for debate is whether the party's conservative base bears much responsibility for their political meltdowns.
One week before Election Day, Mr. Donnelly, the Democrat, cut a simple ad against Mourdock. It’s called “Opinion,” but it could also be called “Richard’s Greatest Hits,” because it recounts all of Mourdock's controversial statements over the course of the campaign.
“Not only has Richard Mourdock said he wants to ‘inflict’ his opinions on us,” said Elizabeth Shappell, Donnelly’s communications director, in a statement. “He has questioned the constitutionality of Social Security and Medicare, he said pregnancies resulting from rape are something God intended, and claimed he didn’t take a pledge to support every job in Indiana.”
Mourdock’s performance has put in doubt the GOP's ability to hold onto the seat now held by Sen. Richard Lugar (R).
“Whatever else you think about the Mourdock race, it was a safe seat” with Senator Lugar, whom Mourdock throttled in the primary, says Mr. Davis. “It was a seat we wouldn’t have to worry about it. This way, if we do win it, we’re out there spending millions and millions of dollars that we could reallocate” to other races.
Pouring millions into a once-safe seat is just what the GOP has done: Only three Senate races have cost more for the party and outside groups than the one in Indiana.
Conservative strategists say Lugar's days in the Senate were numbered anyway. Indeed, fewer than 1 in 5 Indiana voters in the GOP primary said they backed Mourdock because of his tea party ideological bent, observed veteran Indiana political analyst Brian Howey recently. Most primary voters said they believed that Lugar was too old or had been in Washington too long.
And Mourdock, for all his foibles, may yet pull out a win, helped along by a strong gubernatorial candidate in the GOP's Mike Pence and Mitt Romney’s wide lead in the state. One recent poll showed Mourdock trailing Donnelly by 11 percentage points. Mourdock’s campaign released its own internal figures showing the race tied.
In Missouri, Representative Akin's comments about “legitimate rape” in August led Mr. Romney and vaunted Republican strategist Karl Rove to treat the party’s Senate nominee as something more dangerous than radioactive. Polls that once showed Akin as an almost sure-fire winner over Senator McCaskill – a seat GOP strategists had marked down for two years as a near-certain pick-up – now show him cruising toward an almost-certain loss.
“I’d hate to say that anything is impossible,” says Dr. Calfano of Missouri State University. “But he’s done the exercise where he’s said, ‘I’m going to try to dig the biggest hole that I can and see if I can get out of it.’ He doesn’t have enough time to close the gap.”
But Akin’s candidacy was not powered by the third-party conservative groups or narrowly focused fiscal conservative voters that Official Republicans in Washington blame in part for the passel of poor Senate candidates in 2010. In fact, conservative groups like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth stood up for other candidates in a crowded Missouri GOP primary field that Akin bested by a small plurality. Akin, whose political base has long been anchored among evangelical Christians, was until very recently a staunch defender of earmarks, politically directed congressional spending seen as wasteful by most tea partyers.
Though tea party forces dispute suggestions that an Election Day underperformance in Senate contests should be laid at their doorstep, groups like those run by Mr. Kibbe have learned something from the trials of 2010 and 2012. They say they intend to give prospective endorsees a more thorough grilling in future years, with an eye toward voters in a general election.
While FreedomWorks doesn’t evaluate candidates on social issues, it will be asking candidates about them for the first time in the 2014 cycle to make sure a candidate with the right fiscal mind-set isn’t going to implode on other topics.
“You have to be able to articulate your position” on social issues like abortion, Kibbe says, “in a way that doesn’t hurt your ability to win.”