Perfect Storm for Democratic Pickups

by Stuart Rothenberg November 16, 2012 · 10:50 AM EST

While most members of the national media have focused on President Barack Obama’s narrow popular vote/substantial electoral vote victory, the far more stunning results occurred in the Senate.

Though defending 23 seats to the GOP’s 10, Democrats added two more seats last week (counting Maine independent Angus King). That was a mind-boggling result, especially considering the large number of Democratic open seats and where the two parties’ prospects were a little more than a year ago.

The Democratic gain can’t be traced to one factor. Instead, it rested on a number of elements.

First, obviously, was a strong Democratic class of challengers and open-seat nominees.

In North Dakota, at-large GOP Rep. Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp were strong, personable candidates, though Heitkamp was a little better. Berg began with higher negatives that resulted from a bitter 2010 race against then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy, and the Republican had more of a “businessman” persona in this state where rural roots are important.

Heitkamp, who lost a race for governor against Republican John Hoeven in 2000, is down-to-earth and easy to like. After being diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of her 2000 race, she probably began as a sentimental choice for some state voters who admired her tenacity and courage. And it didn’t hurt that her campaign was better than Berg’s.

Ex-Rep. Heather Wilson was a strong GOP nominee in New Mexico, but so was Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich, and the state’s partisan bent was simply too much for Wilson to overcome. Former Hawaii Republican Gov. Linda Lingle had the same problem.

In Virginia, Republican George Allen was good enough to win most races, but Democrat Tim Kaine was an even better candidate, especially after Obama’s numbers improved. The president’s victory in the Old Dominion was enough to help Kaine carry the state.

In Maine, King, who wasn’t the Democratic nominee but was the party’s de facto candidate, had the best profile and best positioning in the three-way race, so it isn’t surprising he won the seat.

The only Democratic top-tier challengers and open seat candidates to lose were Arizona’s Richard Carmona and Nevada’s Rep. Shelley Berkley. Both were adequate candidates. Carmona, who positioned himself as a nonpolitician but sounded like a generic candidate, simply wasn’t as good a candidate as Rep. Jeff Flake, and Berkley didn’t have the breadth of appeal that appointed Sen. Dean Heller had (which is why she ran 7 points behind the president in the state).

Elsewhere, other factors were more important.

In New England, two credible Republicans, Sen. Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts and Linda McMahon of Connecticut, simply couldn’t overcome their states’ strong Democratic bent. Brown was badly outspent in his race, while McMahon once again could not turn a huge financial advantage into a victory.

The GOP committed political suicide in Missouri and Indiana — two races that should have been easy wins.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee should send a box of candy to the Club for Growth for helping Richard E. Mourdock knock off veteran Sen. Richard G. Lugar in the Republican primary, and it should send Rep. Todd Akin flowers for refusing to get out of a race he should have known he couldn’t win. Both men had the political instincts of Christine O’Donnell.

Democratic incumbents held their own, in some cases with an assist from the president.

Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson didn’t need the help to beat back GOP Rep. Connie Mack, who was one of the more delusional candidates I’ve ever interviewed. Mack seemed to have a giant chip on his shoulder when I interviewed him. He told me “outside” groups were going to raise enough money to make up for his fundraising shortfall. Even more absurd were memos from campaign adviser Arthur Finkelstein pointing to a Mack victory.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson were flawed candidates. Obama’s win there may have been enough to help Baldwin.

But even Democrats say the outcome could well have been different if “outside” GOP groups had jumped into the void after the primary to defend Thompson and attack Baldwin. But that didn’t happen, and Democratic ads attacking Thompson quickly erased his initial advantage.

In Montana, GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg was a good candidate, but Sen. Jon Tester was a little bit better. Tester’s early ads were terrific, but Rehberg hung in the race, trying to make it about Obama. Had Tester faced Rehberg in 2010, the Republican would have won. But this time Montana voters (like North Dakotans) could vote against Obama and for the Democratic Senate nominee.

Finally, in Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) was a more experienced candidate. He ran his usual good campaign, but the race’s outcome probably rested on Josh Mandel’s three major flaws — he looked too young, positioned himself too far to the right and appeared too ambitious.

Brown drew about 50,000 votes fewer than Obama, but Mandel drew 220,000 votes fewer than Romney. That falloff is telling.
Democrats won 15 of the 17 most competitive Senate contests, losing only Nevada and Arizona. Virtually all of the swing seats fell their way, which sometimes happens in wave elections but rarely happens in status-quo elections.

It’s easy to give credit and blame to the parties’ campaign committees, but I’m more cautious than most when it comes to second-guessing. Each cycle is different, in part because the different states and candidates involved but also because of the broader political dynamics.

The DSCC certainly deserves some credit for getting good candidates in place, as well as for the results. The National Republican Senatorial Committee will get some blame, though I see little evidence that it erred anywhere except possibly in Wisconsin. The fact of the matter is that in primaries, Republicans have a much more complicated grass-roots problem than do Democrats.