History May Tell Us Little About GOP’s 2014 Senate Prospects

by Stuart Rothenberg March 21, 2013 · 9:58 AM EDT

A recent National Journal item caught my attention. Entitled “Expanding the Map,” it began: “When Republicans gloat about the seven Democratic-held, red-state Senate seats up in 2014, Democrats can note that only six of their incumbents have lost since the 1990s.”

The statement is true … but potentially misleading.

Yes, over the past seven elections, Republicans have defeated only six Democratic senators seeking re-election. But there are two reasons for that. First, political waves have favored Democrats more than Republicans over the past dozen years. And second, weak Republican candidates who emerged from ideological primaries failed to win very winnable races.

We have seen two Democratic wave elections in the past dozen years — in 2008 and 2006 — and only one Republican Senate wave, in 2010. But in reality, we had a third Democratic Senate wave — in 2000, when the relatively weak Republican Senate class elected in the 1994 wave came up for re-election for the first time. Five GOP incumbents lost that year, a large number considering that the presidential contest was a tie and the House results were a virtual wash.

And second, there is no denying that Republicans have underperformed in Senate races recently. We’ve all talked at length about how the GOP has blown races in Colorado, Delaware, Missouri, Nevada and Indiana over the past couple of cycles. And, yes, if Republicans in what should be competitive contests continue to nominate seriously flawed candidates, they will continue to lose races that they should win.

Finally, if you want to consider all the numbers, here are a few more to think about.

Over the past seven elections, 18 Republican senators have lost their bids for re-election, while only six incumbent Democrats were denied another term. But during that same period of time, 13 Democratic open seats switched to the GOP, while only eight Republican open seats switched to the Democrats.

No wonder Republican strategists are salivating at the thought of an early handful of Democratic open seats — in West Virginia, Iowa, Michigan and New Jersey, so far.

Anyway, what do all of these numbers tell us about 2014? Not much. Each election cycle is different, since only one-third of all seats are up. What is clear is that Republicans have opportunities and Democrats don’t. Beyond that, it’s too early to make predictions.