A lot of Republicans like their party’s chances of winning control of the U.S. Senate this fall. Think of it this way: On opening day, every team is a pennant contender.
I am a registered Republican myself, and a fan of the New York Mets too. Optimism is in my nature. As they say in Flushing, “You gotta believe.” But rooting for the Mets has meant an unbroken string of disappointments since a certain October night in 2006, when the Mets found one of their many creative ways not to reach the World Series. They outdid themselves in 2007 with an epic late-season collapse. Then they collapsed again in 2008, and they haven’t had a winning season since.
In the same period, Republicans have likewise shown that there are at least 50 ways to lose your lunch money. In 2006 the Democrats needed to win every closely contested race in order to get a Senate majority. Republicans did nothing to stop them. Two years later, John McCain put Sarah Palin on his presidential ticket and then discovered that her idea of global diplomacy was to wave at the Russians from her living room window in Alaska.
In 2010, with a backlash against President Obama and congressional Democrats in full swing, the GOP had an excellent chance to pick up vital Senate seats and maybe flip the chamber. Instead the party’s base chose candidates in key states who made Palin look like the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. And then the Republicans did exactly the same thing in 2012, while also inventing a primary process that left Mitt Romney dazed and confused. The Republican effort two years ago will always be remembered for the image of actor Clint Eastwood conversing with an empty chair at the party’s convention, in front of a national television audience.
So, my fellow Republicans, forgive me if I’m not ready to nominate the rally monkey as our party’s mascot. I’m afraid he’ll become our Senate nominee in a key state.
On paper, Republicans really do have a pretty good shot at taking the Senate this year. To do so, they need a net gain of six seats. By most accounts, there are at least eight Democratic-held seats in play, in Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, West Virginia and New Hampshire. More optimistic Republicans would add some combination of Oregon, Colorado, Virginia and Michigan to this list, but you have to be more of a true believer than I am to give credence to these dreams.
Democrats will want to offset potential losses by picking up Republican-held seats. They have an outside chance in Georgia. They would like to believe they will pick off the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, in his home state of Kentucky, but this is also a dream. And while Republicans bicker over their primary runoff results in Mississippi, the chances of a Democrat winning a Senate seat there approach those of Alex Rodriguez making next year’s all-star team.
So Republicans don’t have to win most of the winnable races to gain a Senate majority. They just have to sweep, or nearly sweep, the battleground states. They can afford to lose no more than one or two, tops.
There should be a few batting practice tosses here: Montana, South Dakota and Arkansas seem nearly out of reach for Democrats, though early-season polling in small states is notoriously scant and unreliable. For some reason pundits seem to give incumbent Democrat Mark Begich close to a 50-50 chance of holding his seat in oil-dependent Alaska. Given the estrangement of most of his party from the oil industry, I’d say Begich is a goner. Likewise, the Democrats seem likely to lose the seat retiring Jay Rockefeller has held for them in West Virginia, where the administration’s fight against coal sells about as well as Yankee memorabilia at Citi Field.
Mary Landrieu ought to be in equally deep trouble in Louisiana, another bright-red, energy-dependent state. But it’s usually not a good idea to bet against a politician named Landrieu in Louisiana. This is a state where Republicans could pull off an improbable defeat.
A decade ago North Carolina would have been safely Republican. Now it is a legitimate tossup, if only because Kay Hagan is an incumbent running in a state Obama carried in 2008 and only narrowly lost in 2012. Don’t underestimate the power of incumbency. Two years ago Jon Tester easily won re-election in Montana, the same state in which fellow Democrat John Walsh looks like roadkill this year. Walsh is also an incumbent, but only technically, since he was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Max Baucus’ early retirement.
Scott Brown will hit the comeback trail in New Hampshire, having been relegated to the farm after Elizabeth Warren captured his Massachusetts roster spot two years ago. He is a good journeyman player who knows how to win in the Democratic turf of the Northeast, but like any member of his party, he needs to have a strong political wind in his favor to hit a home run. He had it in the 2010 special election, when he captured Sen. Ted Kennedy’s old seat at the height of the Affordable Care Act debate. But this year, assuming he gets the GOP nomination, he will confront an incumbent - Jeanne Shaheen - in a state that increasingly looks like its neighbors’ political sibling, in large part because of migration from Massachusetts. A Brown win this year would be almost as much a surprise as his rookie breakout in 2010. I would not count on it.
I checked the standings as I prepared to wrap up this post. The Mets, though well below .500, aren’t out of it yet. They took a series against the Braves last week. They could come back strong after the All-Star break and win this thing. And the GOP can get over the hump, too, especially if they put their best lineup on the field. This is a winnable year for them, certainly more so than for the Mets.
But I’m a Republican and a Mets fan. I am used to being disappointed, except for the occasional years when magic seems to happen. Like my peers, I cherish those memories of great past seasons and their personalities, of Tom Terrific and Dr. K and the Gipper.
You gotta believe. Get that rally monkey out of here. He works for the Angels.