Tea party losses cheer some Republicans, but chill Democrats' Senate hopes

In the fight for control of the Senate, Democrats had been counting on Republicans to elect tea party candidates in the primaries who would be too extreme for a general election. They didn't.

Charlie Riedel/AP
US Sen. Pat Roberts makes his victory speech at a Johnson County Republican's election watch party on Tuesday, in Overland Park, Kan. Senator Roberts defeated tea party-backed challenger Milton Wolf.

When it comes to the fierce competition for control of the US Senate, one party’s whoops and cheers are the other party’s sighs and slumped shoulders.

So it is this week, as incumbent Senate Republicans celebrate the fact that they have beaten back a slew of tea party challenges this year, ending with GOP primary victories for Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee on Thursday and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas on Tuesday.

Not so long ago, Democrats had seen the tea party as an opportunity to gain or buttress seats in an election year that favors Republicans, a year in which the GOP needs only six seats to retake the Senate. That hasn't happened. As a result, Democrats are now in a weaker position to retain their majority in the Senate in November.

More bad news for Democrats arrived Thursday, when Sen. John Walsh (D) of Montana announced he is pulling out of the race over allegations of plagiarism. That race had looked tough anyway, in a red state such as Montana, but now it seems out of play.

“Whomever Democrats choose to replace Walsh on the ballot will start off so far behind in money and campaign infrastructure that it is extremely difficult to see [Republican candidate Steve] Daines losing the race,” writes Nathan Gonzales of the independent Rothenberg Political Report. The group switched its rating of the state from “leaning Republican” to “Republican favored.”

Together with South Dakota and West Virginia, two Democratic seats that some experts view as likely to turn Republican, that puts three seats in the GOP column, with just three more to go (with the understanding, of course, that elections are fluid things).

From the start, Democrats have faced a map and a climate that works against them. The Senate is elected a third at a time, and this year’s contests are heavily spread among states won by Mitt Romney in 2012.

For instance, Democrats defending their seats in the toss-up states of Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina, all have to contend with the fact that Mr. Romney won these states in 2012. The president’s party also usually loses seats in a midterm election. President Obama’s low approval rating only makes things harder.

Democrats had hoped that a few tea party victories in the GOP primaries might have allowed them to knock out those candidates in the general election, as happened in 2012. Many tea party candidates are viewed as too extreme to win in a general election, sometimes even in a conservative state.

If, for instance, a tea party candidate had won in North Carolina, that would have greatly relieved the pressure on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who instead is now in a close race with Thom Tillis, Republican speaker of the state House. 

Or if a tea party candidate had won in Georgia, a red state, that would have given Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn a much better chance of taking over a GOP vacancy. Now the Rothenberg report rates that seat as “Republican favored.”

Despite many favorable GOP indicators, Democrats and many outside observers don't yet see a Republican takeover as a foregone conclusion. After all, the map looked good for the GOP to take back the Senate in 2010 and 2012, and for various reasons, including tea party "spoilers," it didn't.

If Republicans manage to pick up only five seats, the Senate would be evenly split and the Democrats would hold the majority with Vice President Biden as the deciding vote, says Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of the independent “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” at the University Virginia Center for Politics.

Moreover, Democrats feel they have quality candidates and are campaigning on local and pocketbook issues and personal positives, while Republicans are leading a largely anti-Obama, national-issues campaign.

But at this point in the race, it’s looking very good for Republicans. “It’s important to remember where these races are taking place, that it’s mostly in heavily Republican turf,” says Mr. Skelley. “Republicans ought to be doing well. If they don’t take back the Senate, it’s an absolute failure for them.”

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