What If Republicans Don’t Win Control Of The Senate?
The polling all seems to be showing things moving in the Republican Party’s favor, as does the Generic Congressional Ballot, and forecasts from the likes of Nate Silver and Sam Wang continue to show the probability of the GOP Senate takeover as being high enough that if it didn’t happen it would call their models, and the polls they are at least partly based on, into question. President Obama’s job approval remains low, especially in the states where embattled Red State Democrats are trying to defend their seats. The classic right track/wrong track poll question shows that more than two-thirds of respondents believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, a number that is usually bad news for members of the President’s party in a midterm election. And, finally, polling has consistently shown that voters as a whole are largely disinterested in the midterms and don’t care very much who wins control of the Senate, but that Republicans are more motivated to get out to vote than Democrats, something that could boost the GOP’s traditional turnout advantage in these types of elections. Add it all up and things are looking very good for Republicans in these last 72 hours or so of campaigning.
All that being said, things could go differently. Many of the key Senate races that the GOP needs to win are polling within the margin of error, for example, and pollsters still have not found a way to adequately measure the impact of early voting on their polling models, something that could have an impact in states like Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, and North Caroline. Given all of that, there is a possibility, albeit a small one when you look at the odds, that Democrats could survive by the skin of their teeth and hold on to the Senate, even if that means a 50-50 Senate where Joe Biden ends up spending the next two years breaking a lot of tie votes. If that happens, then the GOP will have been denied the chance to regain control of the Senate, which they lost in 2006 and lost even more ground in after the 2008 elections for the third time in four years. That would be significant in many respect, not the least being the fact that it seems unlikely that Republicans would be able to pick up ground in the Senate in either 2016 or 2018, when they will have far more potentially vulnerable seats to defend than they have this year. Given that, failure to take the Senate this year would be a big psychological blow to the party and, as National Review Senior Editor Ramesh Ponnuru write sat Bloomberg, would likely set off something of a civil war inside the GOP that would reverberate into 2016:
Republicans would be shell-shocked, having done worse than expected in two elections in a row. Defeat would mean the party’s problems run deeper than they thought. And fixing them would be complicated by renewed factional quarreling.
Many conservatives, for instance, would argue that the party establishment had led them to ruin. The establishment largely got its way in the 2012 presidential primaries, and then got its way again in running an agenda-less general-election campaign. This time, Exhibit A for these conservatives would be the North Carolina Senate race, where the establishment candidate — Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House — has persistently run a little behind his Democratic opponent. (Actually, that might be Exhibit B if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell manages to lose in Kentucky.)
Conversely, a lot of Republican officeholders might conclude that the Democratic attacks on them as uninterested in compromise and hostile to women had succeeded, and that they should accordingly move leftward.
All this would make for an exceptionally raucous set of presidential primaries in 2016. Already, Republican grandees are very unsure of who their candidate should be, and suddenly they’d be dealing with a primary electorate more distrustful of their favorites.
It would certainly set up an interesting battle inside the Republican Party. Going into 2014, the running theme was the battle between the Tea Party wing of the party and the more “establishment” mainstream wing of the party represented by groups the Chamber of Commerce and others who had essentially sat back in 2010 and 2012 and watched as Tea Party groups used party primaries to put forward candidates that ended up hurting the party as a whole on a national level. That battle was really joined, of course, in the wake of last year’s government shutdown which was largely manipulated by Senator Ted Cruz and groups like FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund. By and large, the establishment backed candidates, as well as incumbents like Mitch McConnell, Thad Cochran, and Ted Stevens, managed to beat back their Tea Party challengers, although its worth noting that the Tea Party may have lost the election battles, but it has largely won the ideological war inside the GOP.
Notwithstanding those particular victories, though, failure to win the Senate in 2014 is likely to provide fodder for both sides of the divide inside the GOP as we head into 2016. Establishment party insiders are likely to fall back on arguments that the party needs to reconsider its policies on issues like immigration and gay rights, and to reach out to groups that the party has largely lost in recent years such as Latino and younger voters, if it is going to have a chance of maintaining its status as a national party moving forward. Tea Party and other hard core conservatives, meanwhile, will argue that the reason the party lost is that it didn’t pursue a sufficiently conservative agenda. This isn’t much different, of course, from the arguments that are going to be made going forward in 2016, of course, but if they are being made in the context of a third straight failure to retake the Senate, then the arguments are likely to become far more heated and far more contentious. In addition to that, we’d likely see the same kind of battles play out in the House, which the GOP will most assuredly hold, with the Leadership and more moderate conservatives attempting to push the agenda in a direction likely to try to help the party in 2016 by broadening the coalition while the Tea Party side tries to push the same kind of hard right agenda they have been pursuing since the 2010 elections. On the Senate side, and depending on what happens to Mitch McConnell on Tuesday, there may be a battle for control of what would still be the minority caucus that would make the job of whomever the GOP Senate Leader might be even more difficult than McConnell’s has been over the past two years.
The odds, of course, are that the GOP will squeak by with some sort of majority in the Senate, but if that doesn’t happen I think Ponnuru is largely correct that we can expect the knives to come out, which would make 2016 difficult for a party that is already deeply divided to begin with.