October 12, 2013
G.O.P.’s Hopes to Take Senate Are Dimming
By JEREMY W. PETERS
WASHINGTON — Next year was supposed to be a prime opportunity for Republicans to retake the Senate. And for a while, everything seemed to be breaking their way: a wave of Democratic retirements, a fluke in the electoral map that put a large number of races in states that President Obama lost, a strong farm team of conservative Senate hopefuls from the House.
Then the government shut down. Now, instead of sharpening their attacks on Democrats, Republicans on Capitol Hill are being forced to explain why they are not to blame and why Americans should trust them to govern both houses of Congress when the one they do run is in such disarray. Complicating the prospects, the grass-roots political force that has provided so much of the energy for conservative victories over the last four years — the Tea Party — is aggressively working against Republicans it considers not conservative enough.
As a result, many Republicans are openly worrying that the fallout from the fiscal battles paralyzing the capital will hit hardest not in the House, which seems safely in Republican hands thanks to carefully redrawn districts, but in the Senate. Republican infighting, they say, has given Democrats the cover they need to deflect blame and keep their majority.
“The Tea Party benefits when the energy is focused on the Democratic Party and their agenda,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant and former strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “What’s concerning is a select few groups trying to turn that fire inward on the Republican Party. And that is not helpful.”
In states like Georgia, Louisiana and Montana, the members of the House who are now running for the Senate are demanding that Mr. Obama make concessions on the health care law in exchange for reopening the government. That might help in a Republican primary, but it puts the candidates at risk of damaging their viability in the general election.
And in other states like Kentucky, where the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, is fighting off a primary challenge from the Tea Party right and would face a strong Democratic opponent, being associated with Republicans in Washington is as freighted as it has ever been. Mr. McConnell’s newest advertisement, in fact, adopts the grievances as his own. “Angry with Washington? So am I,” says Mr. McConnell, a 28-year veteran of the Senate.
Many Republicans fear that if Mr. McConnell’s opponent wins the nomination, the seat will flip to the Democrats.
With the elections still a year away, it is impossible to tell what other factors might alter the field. But Republicans, Democrats and independent experts all agree that the government shutdown has added one more cross for Republicans to bear.
“If I were running for the U.S. Senate, would I want to be running from Washington? No,” said Charlie Cook, the editor of The Cook Political Report, which tracks Congressional races. “And if I were running from Washington, would I want to be running from the House Republican side? No.”
The Republicans have little margin of error. A new analysis by Cook Political showed how difficult the math was. The party would need to win five of the six Senate seats considered most competitive to recapture a majority. All six of those seats are in states that Mitt Romney won in 2012, but as Mr. Cook put it, “The path is very, very, very narrow.”
Nowhere are Republican candidates more saddled with baggage from their day jobs in the House than in Georgia, where three members are among those vying for the Senate nomination. Two of the candidates, Representatives Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, have among the most conservative voting records in the House, and the third, Representative Jack Kingston, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, has a reputation for being far less ideological.
In an interview last week, Mr. Kingston objected to his opponents’ premise that the primary fight was forcing him to be more rigid about the shutdown than he ordinarily would be. He said he was not even remotely centrist.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said with a wide grin on his face as he checked off the conservative organizations that had given him high marks. “One hundred percent National Right to Life. A-plus N.R.A. Ninety-five percent lifetime with the American Conservative Union. And I’m the moderate?”
He said he would side with his more conservative colleagues to defund the health care law or shut the government even if he were not running for the Senate. “To the degree that going through short-term sacrifice to change the long-term spending pattern of America, it seems to be the only way to get things done in this environment,” he said.
A fourth Senate candidate, Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, is trying to use her distance from Washington Republicans as an advantage. In a new ad, she notes that her three opponents have a combined four decades in Washington. “Their experience is expensive, and the truth is they are the problem,” she says.
In Louisiana and Montana, which have a history of electing moderate Democrats to the Senate, the likely Republican nominees are House members who have aligned themselves with the conservatives who are vowing to keep the government closed until Mr. Obama agrees to changes in the health care law.
In Montana, Democrats have piled on Representative Steve Daines, a first-term congressman who is expected to run for the seat being vacated by Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat who was first elected in 1978. They have sought to portray Mr. Daines, who signed on to the effort not to vote for a budget until the health care law is stripped of its financing, as a pawn of Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who has led the defunding campaign on Capitol Hill.
The Republican candidate in Louisiana, Representative Bill Cassidy, is a three-term veteran who despite having a 92 percent rating from the American Conservative Union has been attacked by some on the right for supporting health care reform as a state legislator. He has also signed on to the Cruz effort.
The candidate who seems less likely at this point to be tainted by his association with House Republicans, members of both parties agree, is Representative Tom Cotton, an Arkansas freshman who is challenging Senator Mark Pryor, a two-term Democrat. Mr. Cotton, 36, a former Army Ranger and Harvard Law School graduate, is a distinctive enough candidate that his association with House Republicans, strategists say, could be overshadowed by the more compelling aspects of his biography.
For their part, the incumbent Democrats who will face off against the Republicans who have embraced the shutdown strategy seem to feel that they have caught a lucky break.
When told the other day that Republicans were hopeful they could topple her by attacking her insistence that Democrats not give in on the health law or the debt ceiling, Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana was incredulous.
“Oh, really?” she said. “Oh, really?”