With Obama’s poll numbers worse today than they were in 2010, Republicans seemed poised for an historic sweep in November’s midterm elections. A switch of just 6 seats in the Senate, where Democrats are defending almost twice as many seats, would give the GOP control of the upper chamber. This, however, would require the best Republican performance in Senate races in more than three decades. In a number of races, Republicans could fall short due to third party, especially Libertarian, challengers.
Republicans have proven adept at picking up open Senate seats, where a Democrat incumbent has retired, but have a very mixed record in the last three decades on defeating incumbents. In the 1980 Reagan wave election, the GOP defeated 9 Democrat senators. Since then, the party hasn’t defeated more than 2 sitting Democrat senators in any election cycle.
Even in the 1994 wave election, when the GOP regained control of the chamber, Republican victories were built on winning open seats. The party defeated just 2 Democrat senators running for reelection.
This year, the pattern is repeating itself as the Republicans hold significant advantages in three states where Democrat incumbents are retiring; Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. The party is also competitive in two other seats with Democrat-held open seats, Iowa and Michigan. Cook Political Report rates both these states as “toss ups.”
Even running the tables on open seats, however, won’t be enough to deliver a Republican majority in the Senate. Republicans will likely need to defeat at least 3 Democrat senators to be assured of control; more if Democrats pick off Georgia, where GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring or Kentucky, where GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is in a tight reelection race.
Republicans have their best opportunities in Alaska, North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and Colorado. Except for Colorado, Mitt Romney won all of these competitive states. In three of them, AK, NC and CO, the incumbent Democrat was first elected in Obama’s wave election in 2008. Polling shows all five races within the margin of error.
All five races also feature Libertarian candidates for Senate. Historically, fears that a Libertarian candidate will cannibalize from the Republican vote tend to be overstated. Many voters supporting a third party candidate wouldn’t otherwise vote if the challenger weren’t on the ballot. Moreover, depending on the issues at the heart of a campaign, Libertarian candidates can attract votes from across the political spectrum. According to exit polling in Virginia’s governor race in 2013, for example, the Libertarian candidate Richard Sarvis attracted an equal number of votes from both Democrats and Republicans. While Sarvis’ vote total was more than the margin between the Democrat and Republican candidates, it isn’t clear that the ultimate outcome would have changed had Sarvis not been on the ballot.
With the large number of expected close races for the Senate and the almost toxic political environment, however, Republican fears of third party candidates may be warranted this November. As bad as Obama’s poll numbers are, the Republican party is viewed only marginally better. On many issues, especially the southern border crisis, the national GOP seems out of step with its base supporters. The party’s fundraising is lagging Democrats by a considerable margin. Amazingly, House Democrats, who have no chance of taking back the majority, have raised almost three times the amount of small donations as House Republicans. The low turnout in primaries this year is troubling for both parties, but particularly worrisome for Republicans who need a very energized base vote to win in November.
In addition to the Democrat seats in play, Libertarian challengers are on the ballot in Georgia and will likely be on the ballot in Kentucky, where GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell has a stormy relationship with conservative base voters. Both GOP seats could be in jeopardy if the Libertarian candidate attracts a meaningful number of voters who would otherwise begrudgingly support the Republican. Losing either or both would require Republicans to even further outperform their historical record against incumbent Democrats.
Libertarian, and third party candidates in general, tend to underperform their poll numbers on election day. Some of these supporters simply stay home, while others tend to gravitate back to the Republican, or Democrat, candidate when in the voting booth. Even a small protest vote, though, could prove decisive in very close contests. Democrat activists attribute their victories in Montana and Missouri in 2006, when the party recaptured the Senate, to Libertarian candidates defecting from Republican incumbents as a protest against the party’s national positions.
Voters may very well want to cast a protest vote against Obama this fall. The Republicans would do well to remember, though, that protest votes can break both ways.