In 2013, when political analysts gamed out this year's the battle for the Senate, few people believed Senator Mark Udall of Colorado was in any danger. Udall seemed to be popular enough, his state had just voted for Obama's reelection, and the GOP didn't have an obvious candidate.
Yet on Saturday, FiveThirtyEight projected Colorado's Senate election as the most competitive race in the country — giving each party a 50 percent shot at winning. Most other forecasts concur that the race is now quite close, as our hub shows:
Republicans only have a shot here because they got their preferred candidate — Rep. Cory Gardner — to enter the race, and to be nominated. Gardner, who was viewed as "the GOP's next big thing" in the state, rejected initial attempts to coax him out of his safe House seat for a risky Senate bid. But by early 2014, with Obama's approval down and Udall looking weaker in the polls, he changed his mind and decided to jump in. The field cleared for him — he won his primary uncontested — and Democrats suddenly had yet another seat at risk.
Gardner's recruitment is emblematic of the success the GOP has had this year, across the board, in Senate candidate selection. They managed to prevent any of their own incumbents from losing a primary. And in almost every key state, the party got exactly the nominee it wanted — and so far, not one of them has made a crippling gaffe.
This might seem like faint praise, but recent experience shows that Republicans can't take such a thing for granted. Indeed, if the GOP had managed to replicate that feat in a few more races in 2010 and 2012, their Senate takeover might be all-but-assured by now.
Instead, amateur or gaffe-prone candidates won primaries in several states, and went down to resounding defeats in the general election in Nevada (Sharron Angle), Delaware (Christine O'Donnell), Missouri (Todd Akin), and Indiana (Richard Mourdock). While not all of these races were guaranteed to go the other way with a different candidate, they all would likely have been closer contests. Instead, Angle and Mourdock lost by 6, Akin by 15, and O'Donnell by 16.
This allowed the Democrats to amass a majority of 55 seats in the 2012 elections — giving them a good deal of breathing room in this year. And they've needed it. The party has effectively conceded three seats opened up by retirements in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana. Additionally, it's defending three seats in deep red Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska, where President Obama is particularly unpopular. With all that in mind, it's amazing that they still have a fighting chance to keep the Senate.
There are so many very close and competitive Senate races this year that each one really could prove decisive for party control. For instance, if even one purple state Democrat goes down to a narrow defeat — whether it's Udall in Colorado, or Bruce Braley in Iowa — the math for the party to keep the Senate becomes much tougher. So the fact that the GOP has managed to put up solid, competitive contenders for so many Democratic-held seats is a great boon to their chances, and a stark difference from recent years.
Take Kansas. Sure, the GOP incumbent Pat Roberts might be trailing in recent polls, especially now that the Democratic candidate has dropped out, with his support likely to go to independent candidate Greg Orman. But Roberts only won his primary by 8 points. If his far-right opponent Milton Wolf — a radiologist who posted x-rays of gunshot victims on his personal Facebook page — had won, the GOP would be in much bigger trouble. As it is, the race is still one of many that's still being hotly contested as the election draws nearer.
So right now, it looks like that the Democrats can't rely on more Todd Akin-esque candidates to blunder away seats and save the Senate for them. To retain the chamber, they'll have to edge out close victories against serious challengers, despite President Obama's unpopularity. We'll see whether the party can pull that off.