Senate Chairmen Try to Avoid Historic Home-State Losses

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 29, 2014 · 9:58 AM EDT

With just weeks to go before Election Day, the fight for the Senate is coming down to a handful of states, and two of them are very familiar to the chairmen of the two Senate campaign committees.

Kansas Republican Jerry Moran and Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet are trying to avoid becoming the first senate campaign committee chairmen to have a home state colleague defeated in the last four decades.

At the beginning of the cycle, both Colorado and Kansas were rated as Safe for their respective parties. Even as recently as seven months ago, the two states were not mentioned in any serious conversation about the fight for the Senate. NRSC Chairman Moran was focused on expanding GOP opportunities across the country while Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bennet was focused on bringing back the Democrats’ majority by shoring up a trail of incumbents in the South and Alaska.

But a lot has changed, and the fight for the Senate has hit home for both chairmen.

When GOP Rep. Cory Gardner announced his challenge to Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado at the end of February, it was one of the truly surprising moments of the election cycle. But it was also surprising that it came as a surprise to Democrats, considering Bennet represents the Centennial State’s other seat and the committee had named its entire national get-out-the-vote effort (The Bannock Street Project) after a street in Denver.

The notion that Pat Roberts could be vulnerable was not a surprise to GOP strategists, but the threat to him was not expected to be in the general election. After seeing Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett and Indiana’s Richard J. Lugar go down to primary defeat in previous cycles, it wasn’t difficult to see that longtime senators such as Roberts and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran could have tough primary challengers this year.

GOP strategists saw the potential problem and helped Roberts ramp up his campaign operation enough to pull out an underwhelming 48 percent victory in the primary. But the senator apparently put his effort on cruise control in the days that followed, and a series of events, including the Democratic nominee dropping out and the ascendance of independent businessman Greg Orman’s candidacy, has created a very real fight for Roberts.

It’s been 40 years since a senate campaign committee chairman saw his or her home state colleague go down to defeat.

Back in 1972, Colorado Sen. Gordon Allott lost re-election to Democrat Floyd Haskell at the time that Sen. Peter Dominick was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Those were very different times in terms of campaign finance. That was before the Supreme Court’s landmark Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976, which determined that campaign spending was a form of political speech and laid the foundation for our current campaign finance system. The party campaign committees were small, amateurish operations back then.

There really haven’t been that many close calls since. In 1986, GOP Sen. Arlen Specter won re-election with 57 percent in Pennsylvania while Sen. John Heinz was chairman of the NRSC. Two years later, Minnesota Sen. David Durenberger, a Republican, won re-election with 56 percent with NRSC Chairman Rudy Boschwitz.

On the Democratic side, it’s not clear that a DSCC chairman has ever lost a home state colleague to re-election, even before Buckley. In 1990, Louisiana Sen. Bennet Johnston won re-election with 53 percent in a famous race against Klansman David Duke while Sen. John Breaux was chairman of the DSCC.

Of course, the ultimate prize for Bennet and Moran is the Senate majority. But with their colleagues vulnerable for re-election, there is an extra bit of pressure to make sure that their home state isn’t the deciding factor that makes them fall short.