Michael Barone, writing in the Washington Examiner has a sunny take on the upcoming midterms, predicting big trouble for the Senate Democrats. The essence of the argument comes from an excellent analytical article by Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post. What Cillizza did was to compare the public approval of Democrat Senate candidates with President Obama’s approval in their state. In every case but one (South Dakota), the Democrat Senate candidates are outperforming Obama, sometimes by a wide margin. For instance, the Democrat running for the Senate in Alaska and Arkansas is 14% more popular than Obama is in that state. And these candidates are running behind their Republican adversary. In West Virginia and Kentucky, they outperform Obama by 12%. Barone (and Cillizza) use these numbers to show how much of a gale force headwind Democrats face in the upcoming mid-terms. In other words, 2014 is a Republican year.
While it is undoubtedly true that the GOP has been enjoying exceptionally favourable circumstances, I have a different, and more pessimistic, take: look at how poorly the Republican candidates themselves are doing. A perfect illustration is Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. He was first elected in the Reagan wave of 1984. He is currently the Senate minority leader, the most powerful Republican Senator, and has held this post since 2007. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the state of Kentucky with 61% of the popular vote. Obama only got 38%. No Obama sweep there. In the two years since then, Obama’s popularity in Kentucky has plunged to 30%. By all these measures, Mitch McConnell should be cruising to victory, and his opponent, Allison Grimes, should be a non-entity. And yet, he is only barely leading her in the polls. The possibility that the GOP will retake the Senate and Mitch McConnell loses probably won’t happen, but it is nevertheless real. All of these facts taken together say one thing: Mitch McConnell is performing extraordinarily badly. He is simply an awful, unappealing candidate.
Why is it so? Leaving aside the individual peculiarities of Kentucky, he isn’t the only lackluster Republican senatorial hopeful. As Cillizza points out, the problem is widespread. With the political environment arrayed against the Democrats, along with the implosion and disarray of the Obama administration, why aren’t the Republicans heading for 55 or 60 seats in the Senate? The conditions seem right for a romp. And yet, they are struggling merely to achieve a bare majority in the Senate.
The missing ingredient, I think, is leadership, or the lack thereof. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are, until a presidential candidate is selected, the de facto leaders of the Republican Party. And they are probably its worst leaders in living memory. They have been simply dreadful. The Mainstream Media and the RINO’s have accused the Tea Party grassroots activists of demanding an excessive desire for ideological ‘purity’. In portraying the choice Republicans face as one between pragmatism and principle, they are presenting a false dilemma, perhaps intentionally so. The problem with Boehner and McConnell isn’t a lack of ‘purity’ – Mitch McConnell’s voting record is quite respectable – the problem is that he can’t lead. In every test of wills with Obama, he caves. This, rather than lack of purity is the source of his misfortune.
The Republican establishment has been criticized for focussing more on the GOP internal power struggle between the Tea Party and the establishment than attacking the Democrats. The nasty primary in Mississippi, where Thad Cochrane used particularly underhanded tactics to win, is a perfect example. Mississippi is conservative enough that Cochrane will likely prevail in spite of the bad feelings among his core supporters, but GOP veteran Pat Roberts, in Kansas, is currently behind. The irony in all of this is that if the establishment had concentrated their energies on putting forward a coherent alternative message to Obama, an internal threat would not have emerged. Conservatives would have rallied around their flag. But because Boehner and McConnell fly no flag at all, all they get is friendly fire, and rely on the mistakes made by their opponents to prevail.
Even worse, there is border protection and illegal immigration, which can be a topic unto itself. Here McConnell and Boehner have systematically sided with corporate lobbyists against not only their own grass roots supporters but against the American people at large. While money may be important, being on the right side of the people is even more important. Aside from the votes, being popular is a source of money all its own. Lots of little donors and money bombs rather than a few fat-cat cheques.
If they truly wanted to capitalize on their good fortune, in addition to not making unforced errors like pushing amnesty, the GOP should nationalize the election. In the past, whenever they present a unified platform - as they did in 1994 and 2010, and way back in 1966 - they do very well. Whenever they don’t, conservatives – who make up 40% of the electorate - aren’t motivated. A national platform, like Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America, is what is needed.
If they did that, the Grand Old Party would be cruising to 55 to 60 seats in the Senate.