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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Senate Reset

So the much-discussed Senate Republican primary cycle is coming to a close, and many GOP partisans are congratulating themselves on avoiding disaster via the nomination of another Christine O’Donnell or Todd Akin (though they came close in Mississippi). As we reset our expectations for the general election, however, it still looks to be a very close election when it comes to control of the Senate, as I discussed today at TPMCafe:

[T]here are no signs of a Republican “wave” election; most of the positive trajectory remain attributable to a lucky Senate landscape this particular cycle and to the turnout advantages the older and whiter GOP automatically enjoys in midterms these days. So the assumption many Republicans seem to have that they’ll get all the “late breaks” in close races isn’t really warranted at this point. Nor is the much-discussed “enthusiasm gap” a reliable indicator. As Republican pollster Neil Newhouse warned recently (per the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza), the same “gap” existed in 2012:

“The enthusiasm gap was taken to the woodshed by the Obama team’s [get out the vote] efforts,” writes Newhouse. “In a nutshell, the Democrats turned out voters who were ‘unenthusiastic,’ ‘unexcited’ and not ‘energized’ to vote, rendering the ‘enthusiasm gap’ meaningless.”

We don’t know yet whether the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s “Bannock Street Project” — a heavy investment in turning the Obama ’12 campaign’s voter targeting and mobilization techniques into a disruption of past midterm turnout patterns — is going to pay off. The impression I get, however, is that it’s a deadly serious enterprise, and potentially crucial in, for example, Arkansas, where African-American turnout has been abnormally low in recent elections. We also don’t know if Republican “independent” groups are going to be as feckless as they generally were in 2012 in spending their considerable resources.
Beyond that, there are obviously idiosyncrasies in individual contests that are difficult to predict but could change everything. North Carolina’s Thom Tillis is uniquely tied to a deeply unpopular state legislature that’s generated as many negative headlines in the state as Congress. Both he and Joni Ernst took dangerously extremist positions in the course of winning their primaries. Tom Cotton didn’t even need a primary to create ideological peril for himself. Ernst and Georgia’s David Perdue have been gaffe-prone. Mitch McConnell, never a beloved figure at home, is a highly visible officer in a despised congressional status quo. Cory Gardner is the rare Republican Senate candidate for whom a strong Latino backlash against the recent upsurge in GOP nativist sentiment could prove a catastrophe.
On the Democratic side, Mary Landrieu has already in her career accomplished something thought near-impossible for a Democrat by winning a post-general-election runoff. And Mark Pryor’s reservoirs of support are such that he didn’t even draw a Republican opponent last time he ran.
So while Republicans can rightly be pleased that they avoided disaster during the Senate primary cycle, it’s far too early for gloating. And if the imponderables between now and November 4 aren’t sobering enough, they can look ahead to the 2016 Senate elections, when the landscape shifts sharply in the opposite direction and a far less favorable presidential electorate shows up at the polls.

It will be interesting to see if Republicans can manage to avoid the irrational exuberance that convinced so many of them in 2012 that Mitt Romney would be the 45th president.

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