Here are two big questions hovering over this year’s congressional elections: How radical is the mood out there, and do Republicans have a real chance of taking back control of the U.S. Senate?
And here’s a simple way to track the answer to both: Simply keep an eye on four tea-party amigos chasing Senate seats in the key states of Nevada, Kentucky, Florida and Colorado.
In those four states, candidates with tea-party inclinations and the support of tea-party activists have either won the Republican nomination or, in Colorado and Florida, are making serious runs for it. A couple of those candidates are people who would have been given little chance six months ago of winning a nomination, much less a general election.
In each case, Democrats and some outside analysts think Republicans may be shooting themselves in the foot by nominating candidates who can be painted as extremists with conservative views outside the mainstream, in a year when simply nominating safe, garden-variety Republicans would be good enough to win.
But are these candidates really going to be a drag for Republicans? Or are they canaries in the national coal mine, telling us that the disenchantment, fear and anger that have developed in the wake of the worst economic recession in 75 years are driving voters to seek out-of-the-box candidates and ideas they wouldn’t have embraced before?
Those questions are being tested in Kentucky by Rand Paul, ophthalmologist, political novice and son of libertarian Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. In Nevada, it’s former state representative Sharron Angle who has won the nomination by pushing a brash populist message.
In a Colorado race that’s gotten less attention nationally than it deserves, Ken Buck, a little-known former county prosecutor who made a mark by targeting illegal aliens for prosecution, is challenging Republican establishment favorite and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. And in Florida, conservative former state House Speaker Marco Rubio marshaled enough energy from tea-party supporters to drive Gov. Charlie Crist out of the GOP nomination fight and into a candidacy as an independent.
Both Florida and Colorado have August primaries; Mr. Rubio is virtually certain to win the nomination, and Mr. Buck is rising fast.
What’s interesting about these four is that they are running in states where it isn’t obvious that a hard-edged, tea-party conservative approach is a winner. Instead, each state hangs in the balance between the two parties this year, making them especially good testing grounds.
They also happen to be test cases crucial to the national political balance of power. The Cook Political Report, a well-respected independent newsletter that tracks congressional races, rates all four Senate races as toss-ups in November.
So far this election cycle, most attention has been focused on Republicans’ chances of taking back control of the House, which appears a much easier feat than winning the Senate. But increasingly Republicans think winds are blowing so strongly in their direction that they have at least a shot at taking the Senate as well.
If Republicans are to pull off that trick, though, they may well have to win all four states where the tea-party amigos are running strong. A quick look at the math explains why.
Republicans need to pick up 10 Senate seats now held by Democrats to win full control of the Senate. They appear to be leading in North Dakota, Delaware and Indiana, states where incumbent Democrats are retiring and the Republicans appear to be on the rise.
That would leave the GOP needing seven seats. To get there, they would first need to avoid losing any of the five seats of their own where the incumbent Republican is retiring and where Democrats have a reasonable chance of turning the seat their way. That list includes Kentucky and Florida, as well as Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio.
If Republicans hold onto those, their best shot then would require picking up all six seats where the Democrats’ hold appears shakyâa list that includes Nevada and Colorado, as well as Washington, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Arkansas.
After all that, Republicans would still have to find at least one more state where a safer Democratic seat could be put into play, such as Connecticut, California or someplace else.
The bottom line, then, is that it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Republicans pull off a surprise conquest of the Senate without winning at least three of the four states where tea-party candidates are surging.
Tea-party activists insist they aren’t linked to the Republican party. But at least on this important front, the Republican party, for better or worse, is linked to them.