Republicans, smelling a little blood in the water, have begun quite boldly speculating about seizing the majority from the Democrats. A reasonable examination of the landscape tells us that this burgeoning optimism coming from devotees of the GOP is not completely unfounded. Not only are the Democrats defending more seats in the Senate (21-15, when the three special elections are factored in), but they are defending some seats in what has become brutal turf for the Democrats in recent elections. Look down the menu: Arkansas, West Virginia, South Dakota, Alaska, Louisiana. Not one of those is a state where having a "D" after your name would be considered an asset, to be sure.
That having been said, however, the salivation over a Republican ascendancy in the Senate ignores, quite frankly, a vital lesson of recent history. The lesson in question? The fact that Republicans must first survive the perils of primary season in order to put their best foot (and candidate) forward for November. What's more: Their track record in the past two cycles on this score has been hideous. If the Republicans were capable of avoiding bazooka shots to their own feet, they might be on the cusp of the Senate majority already.
With that in mind, let's take a look back at the recent history for the GOP, how they've compromised their own chances well before November, and how they may do so again in 2014. All of that awaits you on the other side of the squiggly thing.
THE RECENT HISTORY OF GOP PRIMARY PERIL: TWO CYCLES, FIVE SEATS
The recent spate of Republican self-immolation in the battle for the Senate began in earnest in 2010. In what was, without a doubt, the most favorable electoral climate for Republicans in a generation, the GOP handed three seats to the Democrats.
The most memorable, of course, came in the form of one Christine O'Donnell of Delaware. When Joe Biden was elevated to the vice presidency, the universal assumption was that the seat would be a Republican pickup, assuming that longtime Republican Rep. Mike Castle (one of the last GOPers that could be called a moderate without it being a complete and total joke) would make the Senate bid. Castle did, and never even got out of the Republican primary. There, in a fit of electoral brilliance, Delaware Republicans eschewed Castle in favor of O'Donnell, who had been slammed by Biden in a 2008 Senate race by a 2-to-1 margin.
How badly did Delaware GOP primary voters mess the bed on that one? A poll taken shortly after the primary showed Democratic Chris Coons with a 15-point lead over O'Donnell. For a lark, the pollster asked how people would've voted were the race between Coons and Castle. Castle led by the same 15-point margin. The primary had produced, apparently, a 30-point swing.
O'Donnell wasn't the only primary winner who markedly diminished the chances of victory for the GOP in a Senate race. Both Ken Buck of Colorado and Sharron Angle of Nevada snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the red team. A net gain for the Democrats of three seats, and all because of Republican primaries. And that's not even counting Joe Miller's upset win in Alaska's Republican primary, because that seat stayed in Republican hands when Lisa Murkowski ran as an Independent and kept her seat (and then immediately switched back to the GOP).
In 2012, the streak continued in spectacular fashion. Who can forget, after all, the electoral catastrophes that were Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock? Add Akin and Mourdock to the list, and that's five GOP primaries that swapped out at least even-money bets to defeat Democrats in favor of candidates that went zero-for-five.
(And that's not even counting Linda McMahon, who threw gazillions of dollars at former Republican Rep. Chris Shays to knock him out of the GOP primary so she could have the privilege of spending a net total of nine figures to lose twice to Democrats by double digits.)
That adds up to a total of five winnable seats the GOP absolutely and undeniably pissed away. Had they put their most electable foot forward, the Senate landscape right now would, in all probability, be no better than 52-48 Democratic (perhaps Reid and McCaskill could've hung on against the more electable Republicans), and perhaps 50-50.
Has the internal strife in the GOP abated since 2012? There aren't many signs of it. So, there's no reason to think that the primaries of 2014 will suddenly see Republicans placing electability over ideology.
THE PROSPECTS FOR 2014
In what could be a very challenging Democratic cycle, there are nevertheless several places where Democrats could be the beneficiaries of Republican self-immolation well before November.
The best prospects may come in races where the GOP has outsized primary fields with several legitimate candidates. In those races, out-of-the-mainstream ideological candidates can find their salvation in the fact that 35 percent or less of the vote could bring them home. In the South, meanwhile, a large field gives the "more conservative" candidate a clean shot in the runoff against an incumbent or a more "establishment" candidate.
Several states in this cycle fit that particular description. Interestingly, two of them involve men who played parts in the 2010/12 GOP primaries: Ken Buck of Colorado and Joe Miller of Alaska.
In a small smattering of evidence to prove the point, a GOP poll released this week underscores the peril for Republicans in Alaska. While the poll claimed that either GOP Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell or former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan would lead incumbent Democrat Mark Begich, it also showed that Miller would be down 19 (!) points to the freshman senator.
While Ken Buck fares about as well against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall as his primary mates, it is worth noting that the standing of Buck's rivals against Udall have all improved since November, while his is identical to where he was in November. This could be a sign that Buck's non-disastrous numbers earlier in the cycle were more a function of residual name recognition than a true reassessment of him as a candidate.
What's more: Someone's standing in the polls today may not reflect the true peril that their nomination would bring. Look at the two most infamous examples from 2012: Akin and Mourdock. Both of them, at differing points in the cycle, held leads over their Democratic counterparts. What gave Democrats hope in both of those races was that, at some point, they'd expose themselves politically. In glorious fashion (one in August, the other in October), both of them complied.
Which is what gives Democrats hope for ... say ... a Paul Broun nomination in Georgia. With limited name recognition at present, Broun polls about as well as all the other Republican aspirants in the Peach State when paired with near-certain Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn. But, hey, it's not like there's a chance that Broun will say something to render himself less electable.
Broun isn't the only Republican that Democrats have to secretly be hoping will win at least one election during 2014. Some have legitimate shots of doing so: Broun in Georgia, or Bob Vander Plaats in Iowa, who seems to be edging towards a bid. Others are bigger longshots, but their mere presence and efforts could weaken the favorites. Here, we think about the longshot primary challenge to Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, or former Sen. Bob Smith's bid for the Senate in New Hampshire, which would certainly be a huge underdog should Scott Brown get in.
There are a number of other races where the candidates are a bit less well known, but the same dynamic applies. In North Carolina, for example, you'd probably rather (if you are a fan of freshman Democrat Kay Hagan) see Greg Brannon win the nomination than Thom Tillis. In Louisiana, you'd rather see anyone other than Bill Cassidy win the nod, though the prospects of that seem remote at this point. In Montana, you'd love to see Champ Edmunds somehow ride a wave of anti-establishment, anti-DC sentiment to a win over Steve Daines. Again, Edmunds is the longest of longshots, but ... hey ... wasn't Christine O'Donnell?
The bottom line is this, however: There is certainly precedent for Republican primary voters causing excruciating heartburn over at the NRSC. And there is absolutely no reason to think that, in this cycle, it won't happen again. And with the number of competitive races on the docket this cycle, it would only take a couple to turn the GOP from a legitimate threat to seize the Senate in 2014 to no better than a 50/50 prospect to do so.
The latter result would be particularly disastrous for the GOP, because their class of 2010 is up in just two years. Therefore, even if they somehow snare 51 seats, it would seem to be a very short-lived victory.
If they want to be anything more than temporary tenants in the Senate majority, they need to not only seize the majority this year, they need to run up the score a little bit. And, if past is prologue, the next seven months may make that task a good deal more difficult.