THE BLOG

Memo to GOP Senate Candidates: Be Independent

09/21/2012 06:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2012

Just about a year ago, 2012's Senate offered source of great happiness to just about every Republican in the country. The math, it seemed, was simple: Democrats were defending Senate seats in "red" states like Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota while only one Republican seat, Scott Brown's in Massachusetts, seemed like a good pick up opportunity for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Democratic seats were also up in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio where recent trends had largely favored Republicans. Finally, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee had recruited some top-notch candidates like former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle to carry the party's banner. It hasn't turned out that way. Most projections show that Republicans won't take the Senate at all. Even before the falling fortunes of several candidates in the past week's polls, outright majority (without taking the White House) required an unlikely string of victories. And the problem in all this, really, isn't the party's candidates or ideology but, rather, the person at the top of the ticket.

For the most part, the Republican Party did a fine job picking candidates.
Only one candidate an otherwise winnable race--Missouri's Todd Akin--appears clearly unsuitable and, frankly, unstable. (One other, Indiana's Richard Mourdock, will obviously have a tougher time winning than the person, outgoing Sen. Dick Lugar, who he beat in the primaries.) Even now-badly lagging GOP candidates like New Mexico's Heather Wilson, Florida's Connie Mack, and Ohio's Josh Mandel clearly have the credentials and temperament to become members of what members still ironically call "the world's greatest deliberative body."

The problem isn't supposed "extremism" (a label the media tends to apply only to Republicans) either. Almost all nominees fit their states well. Wilson, for example, is a conservative with a strong western libertarian streak (she has voted against pro-life legislation) while Lingle, if elected from liberal Hawaii, would almost certainly sit on the left flank of the Republican caucus. Mandel, a mainstream conservative, is a lot closer to Ohio's political center than the far-left incumbent Sherrod Brown. Mack, by most reasonable measures, is a bit more centrist than Florida's current Republican Senator Marco Rubio who won overwhelmingly. Brown is an old-style moderate New England Republican with a common appeal that his shrill, professorial opponent Elizabeth Warren clearly lacks.

Instead, it's a lot simpler: Republican Senate victories in many swing states are going to depend on winning (or at least performing credibly) in those same states at the Presidential level. And the party seems unable to do that. Mitt Romney's lagging poll numbers in Ohio are clearly putting Mandel out of the picture. Even if Romney carries the state (and that seems unlikely) he'd do so very narrowly and Mandel facing an incumbent who looks more, senatorial than he does will have likely underperform Romney based on his current strategy. And this deficit, of course, makes it hard for Mandel to raise the money he needs to remain competitive.

The analysis suggests that Republican Senate candidates, in the little time they have left before the elections, should try to assert their independence. Its not necessary--and, in fact, hugely inadvisable--to curl up to Obama, flip flop, or throw Romney under the bus altogether. But if they know what's good for their party and their country, Republican Senate candidates should emphasize their differences from the person at the top of the ticket (something only Brown appears to be doing right now) and their willingness to put home state interest above that of the party. A few minor reaches across the aisle--even on minor feel-good issues like parks and child protection--could also help. So would talk about issues like education and the environment where Republicans have a good record they can point to. Will it work? Maybe. Maybe not. But it's better than just giving up.