The Senate GOP’s Primary Problem

Charlie Cook

Republicans’ path to a Senate majority is a narrow one. Not everything has to go right for the GOP to win the six seats they need for a majority, but they can’t afford many errors either, particularly those that are self-inflicted.

In the last two election cycles, Republicans suffered enough self-inflicted errors to cost their party Senate seats. These errors largely came in the form of contested primaries that produced nominees who were poorly positioned to win statewide general elections.

As both parties gear up for 2014, primaries again threaten Republicans’ ability to win a majority. This is true even though many factors are working in the GOP’s favor. First, 2014 is a “six-year itch” cycle, in which the party that has been in the White House for six years tends to lose seats in Congress. This has happened in five of the last six such elections since 1958. The average loss in the Senate was six seats, exactly the number Republicans need for a majority. Overall losses ranged from four seats in both 1966 and 1974 to 13 seats in 1958. The second advantage for Republicans is that for the second consecutive cycle, Democrats are defending more seats than the Republicans, 20 versus 14. As important, some of the Democrats’ most vulnerable seats are in states GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried in 2012. This includes Alaska (where Romney won by 14 points), Arkansas (24 points), Louisiana (17 points), Montana (14 points), South Dakota (18 points), and West Virginia (27 points). Even 17 months before Election Day, these races are already competitive. By contrast, only one GOP-held seat—Maine—is in a state President Obama carried easily; he won the Pine Tree State by 15 points.

Democrats also have to defend more open seats than Republicans. So far, they have five open seats: Iowa, Michigan, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Romney carried three of the five states. Today, the Republicans have just two open seats: Georgia and Nebraska. Romney won both easily.

These are important advantages for the GOP, but primaries that produce weak nominees could erode all of them. Plenty of evidence indicates the potential exists for it to happen again, the best example being the open Republican seat in Georgia. Although Romney won the Peach State by 8 points, a very conservative candidate could make this a truly competitive race, especially if the Democratic nominee is the kind of moderate who typically wins statewide races there. Currently, the GOP has five announced candidates: U.S. Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, and Jack Kingston; former Secretary of State and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel; and Derrick Grayson, a minister.

All three House members are considered strong conservatives, although Broun’s voting record tends to skew more toward the libertarian end of the spectrum. Despite Georgia’s significant agriculture economy, he voted against the farm bill last week because he opposes government subsidies of any kind. Both Broun and Gingrey voted last week against the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act because it included exceptions for rape and incest. Broun, a physician, was a cosponsor of the legislation until these exceptions were added. He is also on record saying that he believes evolution is “a lie,” and he has compared IRS employees to al-Qaida.

Gingrey has amassed a conservative voting record that earned him the rank of the House’s 52nd most conservative member, according to National Journal’s vote ratings. Yet Gingrey’s voting record may not cause him as many problems as some of the comments he has made. Gingrey, an obstetrician, defended Todd Akin’s comments about legitimate rape, saying that Akin was “partly right,” although he later withdrew that statement. More recently, he has said that young children should have to take classes on traditional gender roles.

In the end, Broun’s and Gingrey’s voting records and opinions are enough to make many Republican strategists very nervous about the prospect of one of them emerging as the party’s standard-bearer in the general election.

What truly complicates the situation for Republicans is that Georgia is a runoff state. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers move on to a runoff. With five or more candidates in the race, such an outcome seems inevitable. While some GOP strategists argue that Broun and Gingrey will split the very conservative/tea-party vote, creating an opening for another candidate, others worry that they both may make a runoff. That would give Democrats a big opening in a state where they shouldn’t be all that competitive.

Another state that could cause primary problems for Republicans is Alaska, where Joe Miller, the tea-party-backed candidate who defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 GOP primary, is running again. Miller has very high negatives, but a crowded primary field could help him. (He currently has just one other opponent, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, though the field could grow.) Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is among the cycle’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, yet Republicans can’t defeat him without a strong nominee.

Of course, Democrats are cheering on weak Republican candidates, and they may work to ensure that some of them win, as they did in Missouri in 2012. While some Republican activists seem to have learned the lessons of 2010 and 2012, it is clear that not everyone got the memo.

Jennifer E. Duffy contributed