There has been much hope — or dread, depending on which party you support — that the embrace of arch-conservative and Tea Party-backed candidates in contest primaries could seriously cost the Republican Party several Senate seats this November. By my count, the GOP could lose at least five Senate race as a result of embracing a more conservative challenger against the establishment choice: Nevada, Kentucky, Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania. If the Republican Party fails to make significant gains this year because of the close outcome in these races, that would be a strategic failure by the conservative base. But currently, polls don’t indicate that championing right-wing nominees will cause the GOP to lose these races.
While the more conservative or Tea Party candidates in those primaries may not be as electable as the establishment choices, the polling data indicate they could still easily win. A recent SurveyUSA poll found Republican Rand Paul leading Democrat Jack Conway in Kentucky, 51-43. While some polls have shown the race to be close, no independent poll in months has found Conway in the lead. In Colorado, Tea Party favorite Ken Buck is tied with both possible Democratic nominees, according to a recent poll. Quinnipiac’s latest poll of the Pennsylvania Senate race has the GOP’s Pat Toomey tied with Democrat Joe Sestak. While many think Sharron Angle has been a gift for Democrat Harry Reid, Mason-Dixon found Reid with a single-point lead over Angle, and PPP had him with only a two-point lead. Angle could easily overcome that deficit.
According to the polls, Florida seems to be the only state where Marco Rubio’s insurgent challenge against the former establishment choice, Gov. Charlie Crist, has a real chance of costing Republicans a seat. But that requires a lot of luck on the part of Crist, now an independent, to keep his early lead and let two unpopular Democratic candidates battle each other for months. Given that it is a three-way race, the picture could still change in Rubio’s favor. If the Democrat gets a large enough default Democratic vote and Republicans come home, Rubio would have a path to a small plurality victory.
Even if these more conservative candidates end up performing worse than a more moderate Republican would have, that’s unimportant as long as they win. In American politics, getting just one vote more than your opponent has the same outcome as getting a million more votes. These hard-core conservatives only need to be electable enough.
If the electoral environment continues to get worse for Democrats, Republicans who are on the cusp could conceivably win narrowly. If the economy starts to improve and with it Democrats’ chances, many of these Republicans could end up losing narrowly. Whether the conservative primary challenges leave a legacy of brilliant grassroots action or self- destruction will depend on the electorate and the economy. While it is possible that embracing Tea Party-backed candidates could cost the GOP several Senate races this November, the poll data indicate that Democrats can’t bank on this.