GOP Needs To Beat Incumbent Senators

As we head into the 2014 election cycle, one of the biggest questions that Republicans need to address is why they so often underperform in U.S. Senate races. With representation by state without regard to population, the Senate ought to be a GOP stronghold. Looking at the other type of federal statewide races, those for Presidential electors, the GOP has not won fewer than 22 states since Ross Perot split the anti-Clinton vote in 1996 and 1992. Besides those years, the last time a GOP Presidential nominee won fewer than 22 states was 1964. Conversely, elections that have come out close in the electoral college have been landslides in terms of states won – George W. Bush won 30 states in 2000 and 31 in 2004 while victories by his father, Reagan and Nixon have included even wider margins in the number of states won. If the GOP won senate seats as frequently as it wins states in Presidential races, it would have an almost unbreakable lock on the Senate. Even more so since the GOP usually does better down the ballot in non-Presidential years. Probably their floor for senate seats should be around 48 seats and their ceiling well over 60. Yet the reality has been that the GOP has consistently lost more than it has won. Their numbers have not exceeded 55 since the New Deal, but have frequently dipped into the low 40’s and occasionally even the 30’s. In the current Senate, Harry Reid’s 55 member caucus will include 12 Senators elected by the 24 states who voted for Mitt Romney’s losing campaign, and 11 from the 22 McCain states. In contrast, the 19 states that voted for John Kerry sent only 5 Republicans.

While 2012 included a number of disappointments in open seat races, the great problem long term has been the partisan disparity of incumbent retention. In the 16 national elections since 1982, the GOP has defeated only 14 incumbent Democrats while the Democrats have defeated 36 incumbent Republicans. Here is the partisan breakdown of incumbents defeated by the opposing party per year since 1982:

2012: 1R, 0D
2010: 0R, 2D
2008: 5R, 0D
2006: 5R, 0D
2004: 0R, 1D
2002: 1R, 2D
2000: 5R, 1D
1998: 2R, 1D
1996: 1R, 0D
1994: 0R, 2D
1992: 2R, 2D
1990: 1R, 0D
1988: 3R, 1D
1986: 7R, 0D
1984: 2R, 1D
1982: 1R, 1D
Total 1982-2012: 36 R, 14 D
sub-total since 2000: 17-6

Notice that Republicans have never beaten more than two incumbents in a single year. Their big gains in 1994, 2004, and 2010 were built mostly on open seat races coupled with the party being able to hold their own incumbents. By contrast, the Dems have beaten three or more Republican incumbents five times, including twice while a Republican was being elected President.

Nor can this trend be blamed on any particular wing of the party as the defeated incumbents have been a pretty diverse group. Here are the names of those defeated, listed by year and party:
R 1: Scott Brown (MA)
D: None

R: none
D 2: Russ Feingold (WI), Blanche Lincoln (AR)

R 5: Ted Stevens (AK), Elizabeth Dole (NC), Norm Coleman (MN), John Sununu (NH), Gordon Smith (OR)
D: none

R 5: Jim Talent (MO), Conrad Burns (MT), Mike DeWine (OH), Rick Santorum (PA), Lincoln Chafee (RI), George Allen (VA)
D: none

R: none
D 1: John Breaux (LA)

R 1: Hutchinson (AR)
D 2: Max Cleland (GA), Jean Carnahan (MO)

R 5: William Roth (DE), Rod Grams (MN), Slade Gorton (WA), John Ashcroft (MO), Spencer Abraham (MI)
D 1: Chuck Robb (VA)

R 2: Al D’Amato (NY), Lauch Faircloth (NC)
D 1: Carol Mosely Braun (IL)

R 1: Larry Pressler (SD)
D: none

R: none
D 2: Harris Wofford (PA), Jim Sasser (TN)

R 2: John Seymour (CA), Bob Kasten (WI)
D 2: Wyche Fowler (GA), Terry Sanford (NC)

Of the eleven Democrats who lost during this period, seven were in the South. two had served less than a full term, and one had been enmeshed in a series of scandals after winning in something of a fluke (Braun). Russ Feingold is therefore the only northern Democrat to lose re-election after serving a full term without major scandal in over 20 years.

But on the Republican side, there appears to be very little that the defeated incumbents have in common beyond being Republicans. They included arch-conservatives and RINOs, rookies and veterans, members of leadership and rising stars as well as place holders, members who were highly respected as well as some tarred by scandal. They represented every region of the country, including some of the reddest and bluest of states.

Individually, most of these races can be explained – bad year, incumbent marred by scandal, viewed as ineffective or out of touch, etc. But the Democrats have also had plenty of candidates who should have had similar problems. Why were Republicans able to defeat only two incumbent senators each in 1994 and 2010 as they made historic gains in the House, state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and even in open Senate seats? It’s easy to blame candidates like Ollie North or Sharon Angle, but the Dems have been able to beat incumbents with the likes of Al Franken.

Finally, it is possible to beat an incumbent Democrat, or at least used to be – the GOP just hasn’t done it for a long time. Here are the numbers from the three elections prior to 1982:

1980: 0R, 9D
1978: 2R, 5D
1976: 4R, 5D
Total: 6R, 19D

We beat as many Democratic incumbents in two years between 1978 and 1980 as we have in the 16 elections since then. We need to figure out how to start doing it again. There are lots of Democratic Senators who should be in trouble either because they got in due to the Obama wave in 2008  or because they represent states like Arkansas or Louisiana that have moved heavily rightward in recent years. We must find a way to beat more than one or two of them.

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