The Democratic Party has a lot of ground to cover before November. With many incumbent Democrats in states with venerable Democratic traditions, the DSCC is forced to spread itself out farther than it may like to in a midterm year. Democratic operatives see the GOP Senate candidates in Nevada, Kentucky and (assuming absentee ballots do not change primary night results) Alaska as painfully beyond their depth. But in a year when Democrats have a lot of territory to defend, do they spread themselves too thin by going on the offensive in prestige races?
Some seats that have threatened incumbents with seniority on their side must be defended. Their high rank among Senate Democrats gives them the ability to mobilize national resources behind them. Barbara Boxer’s seat in California, Patty Murray’s seat in Washington and Russ Feingold in Wisconsin would be devastating losses for the Democratic Party. But the Tea Party phenomenon has pushed out moderate Republican incumbents, and the primary season this year has resulted in the nomination of several candidates that appear vulnerable.
Pending a full count of absentee ballots, the Republican primary in Alaska has delivered a narrow, upset victory for Tea Party candidate Joe Miller. Democrats rightly see him as more vulnerable than Sen. Lisa Murkowski. A PPP poll showed that Murkowski would defeat her Democratic opponent, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, by 22 points. Miller, meanwhile, polled only 8 points ahead of McAdams in a two way race. The outside possibility looms that Murkowski would run as a third party candidate, but in that contests PPP shows that the Republican nominee would best the Murkowski 38 to 34 points; McAdams brings up the rear with 22 points. However, there is some speculation that McAdams may be forced out of this race in favor of a better known nominee like former Gov. Tony Knowls.
Miller is viewed by many as another “extreme” candidate in an extreme year, although his views on Social Security reform and unemployment insurance extensions have become common enough among GOP Senate nominees to shift the bar of mainstream though towards the right. The DSCC would love the opportunity to commit marginally into Alaska with advertising and take this seat with minimal effort. Alaska has a history of electing Democratic senators, including the present junior Senator form Alaska, Mark Begich. It would be a coup for the Democrats to take both the Senate seats from Alaska. It would also reinforce the meme that the Tea Party has nominated unelectable candidates and forced the Republican Party outside the mainstream of acceptable ideological positioning.
The story is the same in Kentucky and Nevada. Rand Paul and Sharron Angle have received a significant amount of media attention, and the Democratic strategy has been to highlight their negatives, bringing up their Democratic opponents positives by default. This strategy has been effective; Rand Paul was deeply hurt by his comments on the nature of the problem represented by drug crime in Kentucky. He said, in Libertarian fashion, that the drug war in Eastern Kentucky is not a “real pressing issue.” The above average rates of methamphetamine trafficking and cocaine abuse in the state testify to the opposite conclusion.
In Nevada, Sen. Harry Reid, who was polling between 10 and 15 points behind likely nominee Susan Lowden over the last year, has been resurrected by the nomination of Sharon Angle. Angle too was polling reliably ahead of Reid until his campaign to highlight her positions and drive her negatives up began to yield results. While the race is still very much in tossup territory, Reid’s RCP average is +1.3 over Angle. The loss of either Angle or Paul, or both, would be self-validating victories for the Democratic Party.
While Reid, as Senate Majority Leader, must and will be defended with all the forced that the DSCC can muster, those prestige victories could take away from races where the fundamentals are more supportive of Democrats, but lack the attractive national media attention to be prestige victories.
In North Carolina, Republican incumbent Richard Burr has lead his opponent, Elaine Marshall, in every independent poll that has been released. However, an internal poll performed by Lake Research Partners from July 15 to 19, 2010, showed Marshall up and Burr’s negatives conspicuously high. In Ohio, where GOP nominee Rob Portman has only recently surpassed the State’s Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher, the Democrats have the real opportunity for a pickup in a year that has few similar opportunities for Democrats.
DSCC, as of August 21st, has $22.5 million in cash on hand with no debt. They are in a better position than the NRSC, with its $21.1 million. However, $22 million does not go far when races are competitive in 15 states – 9 of those held now or previously by Democratic representatives.
It is not hard to see opportunity everywhere for Republicans in 2010. That is why the temptation is so strong to commit to holding the line against the insurgent Tea Party candidates that threaten to push the ideological goalposts in the Senate farther right than many on the Democratic side of the aisle are comfortable with. Unfortunately for Democrats, a balance must be maintained between prestige victories and a sensible defensive posture.
In this year, with so many places in danger (even places like Connecticut and Colorado are in play), it would be a mistake for the Democratic party to give in to the temptation to make examples out of Tea Party candidates. 2010 is no year to be audacious. The Democrats should stop the bleeding and hope that the “accidental senators” of 2010 are, like the “accidental senators” of 1980, swept away when the public mood is less incendiary in 2016.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org