Even in Wave Elections, Some Races Break the Other Way

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 31, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

Republicans who are privately hopeful that the party can beat conventional wisdom on Tuesday and net the 10 seats needed to take the Senate majority might want to talk to Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker.

The first-term Republican isn’t vulnerable; he isn’t even up for re-election for another two years. But he was elected in 2006 in the midst of an enormous Democratic wave.

This year Republicans have the political wind at their backs but still need to win virtually every competitive Senate race in order to take the majority. The past two election cycles proved that even with a favorable environment, that is an extremely tall task.

“We realized quickly that there was a national wave building and we made sure that voters knew that this was a Tennessee race,” Corker recalled in an interview Wednesday.

Democrats are looking to take a similar path to preserve their majority — even if it is by a slim margin.

“Democrats will try to out-localize our candidates,” Corker said about this year’s midterms, while cautioning his fellow Republicans not to get too caught up in the national conversation. “They have to realize the state they’re running in and make sure it’s a race about the citizens of their state.”

In 2006, Corker was locked in an extremely competitive race with Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) for the open seat vacated by Republican Sen. Bill Frist. The race was considered a pure tossup going into Election Day, and Corker prevailed 51 percent to 48 percent, a margin of 50,000 votes.

“Waves matter less in very difficult states,” explained veteran Democratic media consultant Jim Jordan, who worked on the Ford campaign. In the case of a state such as Tennessee, where George W. Bush won with 57 percent two years earlier, there were fewer moderate and swing voters to be persuaded.

Equally as important, candidate and campaign quality matters more in Senate races. With tens of millions of dollars being spent on a competitive Senate race and a tremendous amount of media coverage, the candidates are under far more scrutiny and voters know more about them on Election Day. This can make them less vulnerable to political waves compared to House races.

In 2006, Democrats also failed to defeat Sen. Jon Kyl (R) in Arizona — where Bush won with 55 percent in the 2004 presidential election. Kyl ended up winning by 9 points, but the race was extremely competitive as Kyl and his Democratic opponent, Jim Pederson, spent $15 million each.

It was easy for Democrats to stomach the losses in Arizona and Tennessee four years ago because they still won the six they needed to take control of the Senate. The 10-seat gain Republicans need next week is a more difficult prospect.

In 2008, Democrats benefited from another electoral wave but still didn’t completely sweep the competitive races. Democrats gained eight more seats but fell short in Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia — all races where Republicans had only a narrow advantage going into Election Day and states where Barack Obama lost the presidential race by 16, 13 and 5 points, respectively.

Next week, Republicans have opportunities in friendly, or at least competitive, states such as North Dakota, Arkansas, Indiana, Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but they also must win at least three of five more Democratic states: Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Washington and Connecticut.

Obama won those five states by an average of 20 points in 2008, and none of them by fewer than a dozen.

Republicans had a tremendous opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in very Democratic Delaware until Christine O’Donnell knocked off Rep. Mike Castle in the GOP primary.

O’Donnell’s candidacy is reminiscent of 1994 when Virginia Republicans nominated conservative hero Oliver North instead of the more moderate Jim Miller. North lost the general election to then-Sen. Chuck Robb (D), 46 percent to 43 percent.

Even though Republicans still picked up eight Senate seats and won the majority in 1994, Virginia wasn’t the only competitive race they failed to win in the Republican revolution.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) was re-elected in New Jersey with 50 percent. Then-Sen. Richard Bryan (D) won re-election in Nevada with 51 percent. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was re-elected by a 2-point margin over then-Rep. Michael Huffington, a free-spending Republican who was married to Arianna Huffington at the time.

Going back further than 1994, past wave elections reinforce the Republicans’ challenge this year.

In 1980, Republicans needed nine seats for a majority and netted a gain of 12. There were even more seats in play and Republicans didn’t win all the close ones.

Then-Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) was re-elected with 50 percent. then-Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) was re-elected with 52 percent and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) won re-election with less than 50 percent. Leahy looks like he’s in good position to survive another Republican wave this year.

In 1986, in the midterm election of President Ronald Reagan’s second term, Democrats took over nine Republican seats but Republicans offset one of those losses by picking up a Democratic open seat in Missouri. Two other GOP incumbents won re-election with less than 52 percent, avoiding even larger losses for their party.

With recent polling showing state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) slipping behind Rand Paul (R) in Kentucky, Democratic opportunities to takeover a Republican-held seat are fleeting this year. So any Republican takeovers on election night will likely go immediately into the net gain column.