According to all the polling averages that political junkies have been obsessively checking for months, next Tuesday should be a breeze for the GOP.
Seven, eight, nine, ten Senate seats are swinging their way, which would give Republicans control of the upper chamber for the first time since 2006.
But what if, somehow, the polls are wrong? Six Senate seats is a lot, after all. And with seven days to go until the election, any number of factors could go against the GOP, allowing the Democrats to retain control, if by the slimmest of margins. What happens then?
When asked about that scenario, one top GOP fundraiser, who has raised money for Mitt Romney and a host of Republican congressional candidates over the last several election cycles simply paused for several seconds, as if time was needed to merely wrap one’s head around such a dire outcome.
“It would be an unbelievable disaster. The party would be devastated. The fundraising would dry-up. It would just become suddenly non-existent.”
Making matters worse, Republicans say, is not just that enthusiasm for the party heading into 2016 would be diminished, but that the divisions within the GOP, which have simmered on a low boil for four years now (flaring up during the government shutdown and debt-ceiling face off) would at last break out into all-out civil war.
In 2010 and 2012, Republicans also seemed poised to pick up a handful of seats. But with the Tea Party at full power, a number of fringe candidates won GOP primaries, depriving the party of easy opportunities to knock off Democrats. In 2014, party elders decided that the nation had seen enough of the Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnells and Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akins, and tried to keep the firebrands at bay.
They were largely successful, with every Republican incumbent or establishment candidate winning his or her primary. Even the Senate’s incumbent Tea Partiers, like Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah played good soldier, stumping for their embattled establishment colleagues or at least keeping mostly muzzled as their one-time allies among the conservative grassroots fought the establishment.
But the Tea Partiers and grassroots groups will be looking for blood—even after following orders and standing down in 2014—the GOP doesn’t retake the Senate.
“It would be like Lucy taking away the football again,” said one GOP establishment operative, who is working with several Senate candidates this fall and so did not want to be seen publicly discussing the possibility of a loss. “It all came together for us. We got all the right people, no one said anything stupid. This would definitely not put us on the right trajectory heading into 2016. It would demand a civil war.”
For the Tea Party wing of the party, a loss next Tuesday would have one obvious culprit: a GOP establishment that forgets to excite the base, which interfered in local elections, and which ran “Democrat-lite” candidates instead of opting for bold contrasts.
For the establishment wing, this would be precisely the wrong lesson. It is, after all, they say, hard to imagine that the GOP would be performing better now if instead of Thom Tillis carrying the Republican banner in North Carolina, the party nominated his former primary foe Greg Brannon, who once compared food stamps to slavery. Or if in Georgia, instead of the mild-manner businessman David Perdue, Congressman Paul Broun, who once accused President Obama of preparing to institute a Marxist dictatorship, secured the GOP nod.
Instead, establishment GOP figures say that if the party had not had these and other primary nuisances, they would have been able to put their firepower on the Democrats even earlier. They point to primary challenges in Kansas, Kentucky and Louisiana in which either the Republican incumbent or the establishment pick still has not fully regained his footing.
And they know that whatever the result next week, the Tea Parties will cite the results as proof that if the GOP had shown more backbone, they would have won even more seats.
“I know the Tea Party guys will be saying at the end of this, ‘We could have 64 seats if only we had picked Chris McDaniel! If only we had gone with Milton Wolf!” said Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist. “And my response is ‘Crack kills. Consider rehab.’”
While scenarios where the party takes seven seats are a lot easier to map, there is still a chance for the Democrats to hold on. It involves winning in GOP-friendly states like Kentucky and Georgia, and the more advanced Democratic ground game coming through in places like Colorado and Iowa. Frustratingly for Republicans, this scenario would be reliant also on some weirdness that was not predictable at the start of the midterm season, like the rise of independent candidacies in Kansas and South Dakota, and the emergence of third-party candidates in states that should be easy wins like Georgia and North Carolina.
What Republicans fear most is that a 2014 loss will provide a major boost to some Tea Party figures as the party gets set to hold its nominating primaries for president. Those like Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush who have urged the party to broaden its appeal will find little enthusiasm for their arguments, while hardliners like Cruz or Mike Huckabee become party saviors.
“If you are looking for a scenario where Ted Cruz becomes the Republican nominee, it is out of the ashes of the 2014 midterms,” said one party insider.
But of course, should the GOP hold on, it still means that the party faces major challenges heading into a presidential election year. This is why some Republicans have the opposite concern: that a win in 2014 will merely paper over the party’s weaknesses in a way that a loss would force them to address. Namely, the concern that winning a midterm in a slew of white, conservative-leaning states will mean that Republicans will cease attempting to broaden the coalition to include more minorities, women, and young people.
“Whether we take back the Senate or not, the same questions will need to be answered, “ said Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senate Committee. “The party is still going to need to address the long term question of how do we grow the party. My fear is that if we have a good 2014 people will say that we don’t have a problem.”