Senate Underachievers

The steadily increasing likelihood (which Nate Silver currently pegs as a 90.9% probability) of Democrats hanging onto control of the Senate is the great underreported national political story of the year. It means the pleasant fantasy that conservative activists have used to rock themselves to sleep each night–a President Romney prepared to sign a vast budget reconciliation bill modeled on Ryan’s blueprint, whipped through both Houses of Congress without a single compromise on a straight party-line vote–is fading, no matter what happens at the top of the ballot.

Much of the limited reporting we’ve seen on this phenomenon emphasizes the role of the Tea Party in creating, as it did in 2010, a weaker candidate lineup that would otherwise be the case, with this year’s Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell being Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. And there’s some truth to that, since IN and MO were considered near lead-pipe-cinch propositions for the GOP when the cycle began.

But of equal importance has been a batch of more traditional candidates who have simply underperformed: Linda Lingle in Hawaii, Connie Mack in Florida, Heather Wilson in New Mexico, and Pete Hoekstra in Michigan. You could probably add Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin to the list, though he does have a decent chance of victory, albeit not by the margins it looked liked when he won the nomination over a couple of hyper-conservatives. In almost every case (you can see this clearly on the polling charts at the excellent HuffPost Election Dashboard), these candidates have faded in the late going after looking competitive for a while. It appears that substituting yesterday’s Republican stars for today’s doesn’t help a whole lot, even if turning back the clock to 2002 has become the primary strategy for Mitt Romney’s self-presentation in the stretch run.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.