WASHINGTON—It might not have been the shellacking the Democrats suffered in the U.S. House of Representatives two years ago, but Republicans on Tuesday failed in their attempts to take control of the Senate. You could say that the GOP got shelled.
Of the 33 Senate seats before voters Tuesday, Democrats (including socialist independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with the Democrats) have won 24, while Republicans captured just eight. It might as well be 25-8 in favor of the Democrats because a left-leaning independent, former Gov. Angus King, won in Maine and also likely will caucus with the Democrats on Capitol Hill.
In the seven seats that were rated as toss-ups, Democrats won six. The Republicans’ one battleground win came by just a percentage point. The GOP managed to lose in two states won by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (Missouri and Indiana).
With the bulk of Senate seats up for reelection this year belonging to the Democrats, many predicted the party would be forced to play defense. Instead they went on the offensive, picking up three seats held by Republicans: Indiana, Massachusetts, and Maine.
This year’s election marks the end of two election cycles where many felt the Senate was vulnerable to a Republican takeover. The GOP picked up six seats held by Democrats in 2010—its biggest gains in 16 years. But even that victory was bittersweet. Republicans could have won more. But ultraconservative candidates in moderate states like Delaware and Nevada allowed Democrats to control the bleeding. Many pundits at the time declared it was just a temporary reprieve for the Democratic Party and that the Senate would follow the House and go red in 2012.
But that proclamation suffered its first puncture wound on Feb. 28, 2012, when longtime moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine announced her retirement at the end of this year. With Maine voters skewing left (they voted to legalize same-sex “marriage” on Tuesday), the Republican nominee to replace Snowe, Secretary of State Charlie Summers, faced an uphill battle. He lost a seat that Snowe would have retained easily.
But that was not the only self-inflicted wound for the Republican Party. In Missouri, Rep. Todd Akin was an early favorite to unseat vulnerable incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Then in late August, Akin uttered his now infamous words: “legitimate rape.”
The pro-life candidate got, at best, tongue-tied while answering the question if abortion should be legal in the case of pregnancies caused by rape. Akin claimed such a scenario is rare, adding that if it is “a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Democrats, who spent this election cycle suggesting that Republican have declared a war on women, pounced. Akin apologized, saying he had “used the wrong words in the wrong way.” But his initial comment fit into the Democratic narrative, and even GOP leaders pulled campaign dollars out of the race and asked Akin to step aside. He refused, but the damage was done. While pro-life groups rallied around Akin, he did not receive even 40 percent of the vote on Tuesday in a state where Gov. Romney got 54 percent of the vote.
Akin’s inarticulate comments made the nation’s voters sensitive when it came to rape and abortion. Enter Tea Party-backed candidate Richard Mourdock in Indiana. He became a Tea Party hero after his primary upset of moderate incumbent Republican Sen. Dick Lugar. Voters in Lugar’s own party ousted him after a 36-year Senate career.
Mourdock’s general election fight against Democrat Joe Donnelly remained tight until Mourdock also started talking about rape. During a debate in October, Mourdock said, “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”
His own inarticulate remarks immediately got lumped with Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments by both the media and Democrats. Taken in context, Mourdock seemed to be expressing his belief in the omnipotence and sovereignty of God and how our Creator can turn tragedy into triumph.
“God creates life, and that was my point,” Mourdock later said. “God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that He does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick.”
But Democrats portrayed Mourdock as another frontline fighter in the Republican’s so-called war on women and used his comments to defend the Democrats’ own pro-abortion views. Indiana exit polls showed that 52 percent of women voters chose Donnelly while 42 percent supported Mourdock.
Both Akin and Mourdock allowed the debate over abortion to become a debate about rape. Their defeats now make it easier for future pro-abortion Supreme Court nominees to win confirmation in the Senate.
But the reason for the loss of winnable Senate seats for Republicans extends beyond the abortion issue. The war within the larger Republican Party tent between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party likely cost Republicans a chance to close on Senate Democrats.
In Indiana, ousted Republican Lugar refused to campaign for Mourdock, even predicting that Mourdock would “achieve little as a legislator.” Democrats rode to victory exploiting this divide between disaffected Lugar supporters and Tea Party Republicans.
This is the second election cycle where this clash between traditional Republicans and the Tea Party has hurt the GOP. The Tea Party strategy of electing far right candidates is not working in moderate states, and the insistence to field such candidates in those states ignores reality and damages the ultimate goal of controlling the Senate.
Going forward the Tea Party will have to decide if it wants to continue to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. If their goal is to endure short-term losses in an effort to purge these moderate states of any insufficiently conservative elements, then, based on voter demographics, they should prepare for more election cycles that bring primary wins and general election defeats.
Republicans also have to improve a candidate selection process that tapped two candidates that had lost previous Senate races. Linda McMahon lost in Connecticut for the second election cycle in a row despite spending a combined $97 million of her own money in the two races, and Virginian George Allen lost his bid to regain the Senate seat he lost six years ago.
There will be some conservative stars in the new Senate, most notably Ted Cruz from Texas, a former debate champion who combines a powerful limited-government message with a Latino heritage. His grassroots, Tea Party-fueled candidacy worked because Texas is a right-of-center state. He probably would not have gotten elected in a state like Maine.
But Cruz and other conservatives will face a congressional session where Democrats will enjoy an even greater control of the Senate, which means it will be harder for Republicans to slow down President Barack Obama’s big government agenda and impossible to stop the entrenchment of Obamacare. Former President Bill Clinton faced a Republican Congress that forced the two parties to work together on economic issues. Obama will not have that same incentive.