GOP Heavyweights Pass on Winnable Senate Races

Monday, 25 Mar 2013 08:28 AM

By John Gizzi

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For all the disappointment Republicans experienced last fall in not only failing to win control of the U.S. Senate but actually losing seats, the GOP’s prospects for winning the chamber in 2014 look rather good, depending on the quality of their candidates.

With 35 Senate seats at stake in 2014, 21 are in Democratic hands and only 14 are held by Republicans. Four Democratic senators are retiring, with at least two more expected to follow them, and all of their seats are considered vulnerable to GOP capture. In contrast, only two Republican senators are retiring and both are from states almost sure to elect Republican successors.

So, it is not inconceivable to imagine Republicans making the net gain of six seats they need to change the current 55-to-45 seat Democratic advantage in the Senate to a GOP majority.

But one element of worry for the GOP could be the number of Republican heavyweight contenders who are passing on races in which they were the better-than-even money to win.

In Massachusetts, Scott Brown became a GOP hero when he won the nationally watched special election in 2010 to succeed the late Edward Kennedy. Beaten by Elizabeth Warren in his bid for a full term last November, Brown was shown by virtually every poll as the winner against any Democratic hopeful in the special election this June to fill the vacant Senate seat formerly held by Secretary of State John Kerry.

But Brown did not want to again go through the drill of a special election followed by a race for a full term and instead accepted an offer from Fox News.

During the National Governors Association meeting in Washington last month, Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad told me flatly he wanted Rep. Tom Latham to be their party’s nominee for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

“Tom Latham has demonstrated he can win in a district that includes 56 of our 99 counties,” Branstad said.

Branstad said the Hawkeye State’s other Republican House member and possible Senate candidate, Steve King, “is in a district that has been changed by redistricting from the one he previously [represented]. He had trouble winning last year and should nail down his district in ’14. If [Republican Sen.] Chuck Grassley retires in ’16, then Steve should run for that seat.”

But two weeks later, 10-term incumbent Latham decided to stay in the House and King says he is “50-50” about running for the Senate in 2014.

When Michigan’s venerable Democratic Sen. Carl Levin said he was retiring earlier this month, the name that was on the lips of nearly every state GOP activist was that of popular, moderate-conservative state Attorney General Bill Schuette.

In a career that began when he won the first of three House terms back in 1984, Schuette has since been his state’s director of agriculture, served in the state Senate, and on the Michigan Court of Appeals. At 59, he is as much a fixture in Michigan as the Detroit Tigers and Amway.

“But I felt the path to public service will take me through Lansing and not Washington,” Schuette told me soon after announcing he wasn’t going to run for the seat of Levin, whom he challenged in 1990. Supporters say that was a not-so-subtle hint Schuette, a cinch to be re-elected next year, will run for governor in 2018.

To be fair, there are other Republicans who can win the open Senate seats in Massachusetts, Iowa, and Michigan. But clearly the contenders who pundits and party chieftains thought had the best chances in those three states took themselves out of the running and did so rather quickly.

At a time when the GOP is looking for ways to generate enthusiasm among donors and volunteers about opportunities in 2014, that has to be somewhat disappointing.

John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.

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