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Why Are Republican Senate Candidates Struggling?

Ross Douthat suggests [1] an explanation for why Republican Senate candidates appear to be [2] underperforming once again:

Now one would expect significantly better results for Republican candidates in a midterm, given turnout differences and second-term fatigue and all the rest. I expect better results. But still: This kind of pattern is consistent with a deeper reality, which is that the G.O.P. is still a weak party with a weak message, and weak parties with weak messages have a way of underperforming the fundamentals, struggling in races that feature larger electorates and more persuadable voters (hence the Senate-House difference), and losing narrowly where they confidently expect to win.

The Arkansas race is a case in point. By most accounts, the Republican challenger Tom Cotton is one of the best recruits for this election cycle that the party has, he is running against a somewhat unpopular incumbent in a state that overwhelmingly disapproves of Obama, and he still isn’t ahead of Pryor [3]. I doubt that he trails him by a 10-point margin, but he shouldn’t be trailing at all. Among likely voters, the race is clearly close, but by all rights Cotton should have a sizable lead. The trouble for Republicans is that one of their top Senate candidates is in a dead heat or possibly losing in a state where he is considered the slight favorite. If that’s true for Cotton, it is difficult to see how the GOP will pick up enough seats to win a majority.

The numbers for Democratic incumbents can’t be encouraging for Republicans, but what ought to worry them a lot more is what the polls have been showing in Kentucky. In a year that ought to favor Republicans strongly, none of their incumbents should be vulnerable in the absence of some scandal, but McConnell’s challenger [4] is running even with him. McConnell will presumably hang on to win, but the fact that there is some question whether he will is a warning to the GOP that things are not going nearly as well for them this year as they expect. It may be that there are enough voters wary of giving Republicans control of both chambers that their individual Senate candidates are struggling to pick up otherwise winnable seats.

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21 Comments To "Why Are Republican Senate Candidates Struggling?"

#1 Comment By Robert Pickard On April 23, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

One possible answer to the question is contained in a summary of a recent debate among the 4 candidates for the Republician nomination for Senate in North Carolina.According to the Raleigh News and Observor:
“All oppose the Affordable Care Act. All oppose medical marijuana. All want to eliminate federal agencies. All believe Russia is the biggest foreign policy threat. And all believe climate change is not a fact.”

#2 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 23, 2014 @ 2:34 pm

The ACA has not blown up the economy, so perhaps some voters are figuring out that the heated opposition to it is wrongheaded? Much of the GOP messaging has been based on opposition to Obamacare–but if the ACA turns out to be successful, or at even least workable-but-not-ideal–what does that say about those who opposed it tooth and nail?

#3 Comment By Banger On April 23, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

Republicans have decided to adopt a nihilist and anti-rational position on all issues. They want to punish the poor and fight more wars–beyond a certain point that’s not going to appeal to responsible people.

#4 Comment By Fulton On April 23, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

Cotton appears to be Bill Kristol’s latest darling, so I’m quite heartened to hear he might blow it. Long may it continue.

#5 Comment By icarusr On April 23, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

I think your last paragraph somewhat overexplains the phenomenon. The real answer is hidden inside the following sentence:

“In a year that ought to favor Republicans strongly”

Which follows “Kentucky”.

Of course, it “ought to” if one agrees with the dominant narrative that the 48% opposition to Obamacare and Obama’s own low job approval ratings define the Senate races. The narrative always had a big hole in it. (viz. Kentucky) It was based on two iffy assumptions: first, that the snapshot of polls form a determinative trend well into November 2014; and second, that the various low ratings and oppositions (of Obama and to Obamacare) are invariably and implacably going to translate into votes against Obama and the Democrats, without much regard to why the ratings are where they are, and what kind of opposition is facing Democratic candidates. And I don’t just mean the Angle-lunacy, but a more prosaic, “But what they got to offer?”

This is not a question of a “weak message” (I don’t know what that means). The average American voter does not buy the Republican message, a message that is being hollered and shouted and voted and announced and tweeted 24/7 with considerable backing from very powerful people.

Until the Republicans come up with a set of policies that truly speak to the real needs of the average American – rather than stoke their common anxieties at DefCon One levels – there will be no “ought”.

Oh, and Kentucky? Well, hundreds of thousands of people have medical insurance now when did not have one before. Because of a Democratic governor. And the senior Senator proposes to take that away from them, siding with colleagues who refer to said insurance as “sugar”. Visit to the doctor for a first-ever check up=sugar: this is what Mitch offers. Any wonder he is not ahead?

#6 Comment By Clint On April 23, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

The flaws in The New York Times Upshot/Kaiser Family Foundation poll are fairly apparent.

The GOP chances appear to be in better shape than The New York Times appears to desire.

#7 Comment By sglover On April 23, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

Golly, who could have guessed that embracing looniness and gratuitous cruelty at every opportunity might backfire? The Republican Party can’t die soon enough.

#8 Comment By Warren Bajan On April 23, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

A political party that may be trying to get over the Bush Hangover by nominating Another Bush in 2016 has problems????

#9 Comment By tzx4 On April 23, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

In my view, there is a profound difference between classical conservatism and what is currently labeled “conservative”
Does conservatism somehow inherently favor extreme elitism, exclusion, and those most economically empowered among us at the expense of the rest of us?
At this point in time those who call themselves conservative most certainly do.
The US Supreme court has two very embarrassing “conservative” members whose conduct borders on the outlandish.
It seems the general populous is catching on to this.
I see myself as an Eisenhower Republican.

#10 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 23, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

The flaws in The New York Times Upshot/Kaiser Family Foundation poll are fairly apparent.

Apparently, the poll-unskewers are still busy at work…

#11 Comment By balconesfault On April 23, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

Let’s see … looking at Tom Cotton on the issues, I see he:
– opposes same-sex marriage
– opposes any reduction in defense spending
– as recently as last year declared that the Iraq war was “just and noble”
– strongly opposes tax credits for renewable energy
– strongly opposes graduated tax rates
– has voted 50 times to repeal the ACA

– 24% of Americans think the wealthy are paying their fair share of taxes
– 55% of Americans now support same sex marriage
– 51% of Americans think cutting the deficit is more important that maintaining current defense spending
– only 38% of Americans think America made the right decision in invading Iraq
– 59% of Americans think the country should prioritize more development of wind and solar energy
– by 49-47%, Americans oppose Republican efforts to repeal the ACA

Hard to see exactly why Arkansas, or the majority of voters in any state that isn’t deep red, should be expected to take a cotton to Cotton. In a rational world, continued insistence that Iraq was the right war to fight should on it’s own disqualify a politician for consideration for a job where he might do serious damage.

#12 Comment By RadicalCenter On April 23, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

balconesfault: Cotton’s job is not to reflect the views of, or represent, the whole country. It is to represent the people of Arkansas, who ostensibly have somewhat more “conservative” views on homosexual marriage and other issues than other parts of the country.

Personally, I favor the repeal of federal drug prohibition “laws”, which have no constitutional authority, and I favor legalization of adult marijuana use in my State. And yes, I’d like to see GOP candidates all over the country come out strong in favor of tolerance, privacy and common sense in this area.

The GOP ought to stand for ending federal interference in marriage, abortion, drug laws, and almost everything else. The GOP ought to act consistently with the Tenth Amendment and declare that the people of each State should be free to decide their own States’ policies on all these issues.

#13 Comment By RadicalCenter On April 23, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

P.S. If we actually obeyed the Tenth Amendment, some States would enact laws and policies that we don’t like. But the federal government would no longer impose one side’s views on the entire 350-plus million people in this country. (yeah, with a realistic count of illegal aliens, there are that many)

Federal GOP candidates who take a tolerant, realistic stance on marijuana, abortion, and marriage — calling to return the issues to the States and end the vicious winner-take-all national battle over those issues — could also stand for free enterprise, self-defense / gun rights, less spending, lower taxes, less regulation in most areas, and WIN. Let’s try it.

#14 Comment By balconesfault On April 23, 2014 @ 7:21 pm

Radical – you’re right, Arkansas is one of the few states remaining where opposing gay marriage is a winning issue.

Then again, Pryor isn’t exactly a leader here either, although he did vote in 2006 against the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage.

So far Pryor has held on, and even reversed some polls, despite being outspent 3-1 by Cotton. There’s still a lot more mud to be thrown though, I’m sure.

#15 Comment By Mike On April 23, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

Conservatives have been operating under the mistaken belief that Reagan signaled a conservative revolution when it never did. Reagan united conservatives with a conservative leaning electorate when the time was ripe for that. It changed our politics and it change our economics but it was never the revolution they thought they’d had.

In the decades since, as the conservatives became increasingly desperate for the revolution to finally deliver on something it never could, they shattered that unity that Reagan won. They pushed away disagreement from the conservative leaning electorate and in the process pushed away the majority Reagan created.

That gets hidden in the success in the House but increasingly it shows as the GOP fails to win elections it ought to when the larger populations are involved.

#16 Comment By agorabum On April 23, 2014 @ 8:15 pm

@balconesfault – well, Cotton did actually fight in Iraq. And he’s a right wing conservative. So its almost impossible for him to walk through the rational steps to realize Iraq was, on the whole, dumb, unjust, and ignoble, even if filled with many moments of personal bravery and valor (and vile moments of abuse and torture of natives by an occupying army).
Arkansas does have a sort of quasi-ACA participation, and started expanding Medicare as of January 1, 2014 (a family of 4 with income under about $50k is eligible). Cotton wants to take that away.
So it’s not Kentucky levels of gov. efficiency (what a strange statement to make…how odd is life), but Pryor now can go to plenty of small, poor towns and say “we just got you healthcare. If you don’t have it, go get it. But be warned, Cotton wants to take it from you in order to cut rich folks taxes in New York City”.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 23, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

“In a rational world, continued insistence that Iraq was the right war to fight should on it’s own disqualify a politician for consideration for a job where he might do serious damage.”

I really really and really hate to agree. But the inability to not reconsider Iraq on its face is peculiar. And reconsidering it is based on what happened on the ground not in the popular vernacular of unnecessary ‘mea culpa’ ‘guilt’ such as Vietnam.

And doesn’t sit well in the minds of a country weary of intervening anywhere.

However, the last three years have been largely disasterous for Democrats and conservatives ought to be a walk. Describes just how devastating the image of conservatives remains in the eyes of voters.

That is why I was optimistic about Governor Romney’s chances — given the record on the ground —

#18 Comment By steve in ohio On April 23, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

“I see myself as an Eisenhower Republican”

Ditto. He warned us of the military industrial complex. He sent illegal immigrants packing. I can’t think of any new domestic programs that he promoted.

One of the few negative things about Eisenhower is that he defeated an even greater man (Taft).

#19 Comment By balconesfault On April 24, 2014 @ 2:35 am

@agorabum but Pryor now can go to plenty of small, poor towns and say “we just got you healthcare. If you don’t have it, go get it. But be warned, Cotton wants to take it from you in order to cut rich folks taxes in New York City”.

And he can actually put a punctuation mark on that by noting that the largest class of direct donors to Cotton’s campaign right now, far and away, is from the financial sector.

Meanwhile, I note that one of Pryor’s main contributors is the private utility Entergy. That is not trivial – Entergy swings a big bat in Arkansas.

@Steve in Ohio: I can’t think of any new domestic programs that (Eisenhower) promoted.

The Interstate Highway System?

#20 Comment By Pete S On April 24, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

Are we sure the Republican Party wants to win the Senate? They don’t act as if they do. As long as they hold the House (which seems to be a given), and they maintain enough Senate seats to filibuster most legislation, they can oppose the Democrats without even having to sell the public on their own plan. And nominating some crazies here and there keeps the donation money flowing from the base.

#21 Comment By Joe_Max On April 27, 2014 @ 12:43 am

@steve in ohio: Re: Eisenhower – “I can’t think of any new domestic programs that he promoted.”

The Interstate Highway system?

“The Interstate Highway System gained a champion in President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was influenced by his experiences as a young Army officer crossing the country in the 1919 Army Convoy on the Lincoln Highway, the first road across America.”

In fact, it’s official name is, “The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”