A number of forces have come together to make the 2014 midterms fertile ground for Republicans to win a majority in the U.S. Senate: President Obama’s job approval remains in the dumps, the playing field puts Democrats on defense in a number of conservative-leaning districts, the national conversation has been focused around unpopular policies or political scandals, and the economic recovery continues to be slower than expected.
All that is well and good, but the main thing that distinguishes this election from recent ones is the quality of the GOP candidates. Fred Barnes writes for the Weekly Standard:
But there’s another advantage: the generally high quality of their candidates. This wasn’t the case in 2010 and 2012, when Republicans blew chances to capture the Senate.
Strong candidates aren’t everything in elections. Money and the political landscape matter. And in a landslide, even poor candidates are swept into office. But as a rule, the better the candidates, the better the prospects for winning. This is especially true in national elections, where candidates get greater scrutiny.
What makes candidates “top-tier,” in the jargon of politics? They tend to be disciplined, quick-witted, have a credible message, don’t say absurd or unnecessarily provocative things, can raise money, and deal effectively with the media. It doesn’t hurt to be likeable, either.
Almost all of the Republican candidates this cycle fit that mold. Democrats on the other hand, well let’s just say that their candidates just can’t seem to stay out of trouble this year.
Take, for instance, Senator Mark Pryor, the most at-risk Democrat in this year’s election, who was caught running away from reporters who wanted to ask him about his apparent reluctance to engage in statewide debates with Republican candidate Tom Cotton. If Pryor is serious about running for office he’s got to stop running away from reporters and his own record.
Another Democratic candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is trying to unseat Republican Mitch McConnell, has the opposite problem: She’s not afraid to talk to reporters, she just isn’t always clear on what she should be saying. Grimes’s staff has repeatedly had to follow up with journalists as to her stances on things like abortion and cap-and-trade, two critical issues in her home state of Kentucky. As Andrew Johnson wrote for National Review, “If this pattern continues to November, voters will be stuck on who Grimes is: Is she the one they see on the stump, or the lawmaker that her campaign says she is afterwards?”
Or Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn who held a Capitol Hill fundraiser that was hosted by Virtual Murrell, a leader of the Black Panther party and a political consultant who did jail time for extorting local businesses. In archival footage Murrell was quoted as saying, “[I]f this racist, ethnocentric, imperialistic dog forces me to go, I have no other choice other than to sabotage your arsenal and to arm black people to use them against this racist power structure.” The Nunn campaign has said it will return his donation, though one wonders whether the damage has already been done.
And perhaps the worst candidate of the cycle so far is Sen. John Walsh, a Montana Democrat whose campaign was based around the fact that he was a veteran; at least, that is, until he was found to have substantially plagiarized his master’s thesis at the U.S. Army War College. A report by the New York Times found that Walsh copied, either verbatim or without proper citation, about two-thirds of his paper on Middle East policy, including each of his six conclusions.
Walsh attempted an explanation. The AP reported that, “Walsh said when he wrote the paper, he was seeing two doctors and taking medication to deal with nightmares, anxiety and sleeplessness.” But that conflicts with the story of an unnamed aide who told the Times that the senator had not sought treatment.
Walsh later dropped out of the Senate race, but only after Montana Democrats had begun reviewing the procedure to replace him with another candidate.
If these are the best candidates that Democrats can dig up in a crucial election year then they could be in real trouble. After all, pitting a historically good crop of GOP candidates up against the dregs of the Democrat bench isn’t exactly the path to maintaining their Senate majority.