On Wednesday, Senate Democrats announced they were committing $1 million to defeat GOP candidate Mike Rounds in South Dakota. The race to succeed retiring Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson has long been assumed to be an easy pick-up for the Republicans. The Democrat move is partly bluff and political theater, but it is also an attempt to capitalize on unique circumstances in that race. The gambit is a good explanation for why Democrats are still competitive at this late stage in the campaign.
There is a reason elections aren’t decided by some simple math equation taking in historical trends, a president’s approval ratings, fundraising receipts or the lunar cycle. Campaigns matter. They have a rhythm which effects turnout and enthusiasm and create a narrative which can ultimately define a race. Whichever campaigns define the narrative on election day usually win.
With less than 4 weeks until the election, and with many votes currently being cast, the overall narrative for Republicans is that races are trending its way and it should hold on to claim a majority in the Senate. For Democrats, the narrative is that the party, against all past predictions, remains competitive in all the critical battlegrounds and is poised to pick-off Republican seats once considered “safe,” i.e. Kansas and South Dakota.
Which is the more exciting narrative?
Where are the “surprise” states where Republicans are suddenly competitive? We are approaching the middle of October and there are no signs that states once thought as potential pick-ups for Republicans, i.e. Minnesota, Virginia, Oregon or New Mexico, are moving in any meaningful way. This week, the national Republicans announced they were pulling their ads out of Michigan, a state once considered a prime target for the GOP. In the final days of the campaign, Republicans are retrenching, while Democrats are actually expanding the battleground.
That this would be happening in the 6th year of any president’s tenure is surprising. It is borderline political malpractice, though, that it is happening with a President whose approval ratings are at historic lows, the economy is stagnant and the world is beset by numerous crises. If Republicans can’t make a state like Virginia competitive in that environment, then the party may have to write off the state forever.
The Republicans are still likely to win the necessary seats to take control of the Senate. The party is likely to hold on to its seats in Kansas and South Dakota, Democrat bluster notwithstanding. It is important to remember how far this lowers the political bar. The Republicans will likely narrowly win the Senate, but the majority will be based largely on states the party takes for granted in national elections. It will not have gained any “new” political territory.
There will be time to dissect how the party found itself in such a weak position. The party’s continuing attack on conservatives is certainly a major factor, however. On a conference call Monday, a senior GOP lobbyist expressed optimism to business leaders about the upcoming midterm elections. The House, especially, he hoped would soon be “rid” of the tea party conservatives and be able to get things done.
Republicans in DC should be careful what they wish for.