Is the GOP suicide club still active?

Some surprise Senate retirement announcements will test whether the party has learned anything from 2010 and 2012

Topics: Opening Shot, Steve King, Paul Broun, Bruce Braley, Mark Begich, Tom Harkin,

The news was good for Republicans over the weekend when Tom Harkin announced that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term in the U.S. Senate. The 73-year-old legislator, who was bitterly disappointed by the hollow filibuster reform compromise Senate leaders reached last week, would have been a strong bet to win reelection in 2014. But in an open seat contest in the Hawkeye State, Republicans have a real chance at scoring a pickup.

The GOP’s magic number is six: Post a net gain of a half-dozen seats and control of the upper chamber will be theirs for the first time since 2006. This is actually a much weaker position than the party should be in, given the strong hands it was dealt in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

In each of those cycles, the GOP squandered several winnable races by nominating deeply flawed, polarizing candidates. Without Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, the party might today control the Senate; not only did those candidates lose races that generic Republican nominees would have won, the publicity they generated with their fringe antics helped poison the party brand and hurt Republican candidates elsewhere.

The battle within the GOP that Harkin’s retirement announcement will unleash will offer a clue as to whether the party has matured in the wake of the last two cycles.

It’s still early, obviously, but there are indications that Democrats will close ranks behind Rep. Bruce Braley, a fourth-term congressman who represents the northeastern corner of the state. The state’s most prominent husband-wife team, Tom and Christie Vilsack, are also being mentioned as potential candidates, but are seen as less likely to run. What does seem clear is that Democrats will nominate an electable candidate – someone broadly marketable to the state’s swing voters and with little personal baggage.

Whether Republicans will do the same is far from clear. Two names are dominating the early chatter about likely candidates: Tom Latham and Steve King. Latham clearly falls into the electable category. His voting record in the House is very conservative — as it is these days for just about every Republican member of the House, even those who were once considered moderates – but he has the image of a mild-mannered pragmatist. A close friend of Speaker John Boehner’s, Latham has won nine elections to the House, most recently in a “fair fight” contest with veteran Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell in a merged district.

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King is a different story. A far-right ideologue who has said that President Obama “favors the black person” and is “at least a Marxist” and has likened illegal immigrants to dogs, he is precisely the sort of candidate who spoiled the GOP’s Senate takeover chances in ’10 and ’12. With King as the Republican nominee, the prospect of alienating swing voters would be high and the potential of politically suicidal statements (like the one that ruined Akin’s chances in Missouri last fall) would be constant.

The problem for the GOP in ’10 and ’12 was that in Latham/King-type contests, primary voters often picked the King-like candidate. This was in keeping with the Tea Party mind-set that grabbed hold of the GOP base when Obama took office; “purity” became an obsession on the right, defined by loud hostility to the White House, an absolute refusal to compromise with Democrats, and distance from the Republican establishment. If the thirst for this purity persists in 2014, Republicans could have a real problem on their hands in Iowa – and elsewhere.

Take Georgia, a solidly Republican state where Democrats can still compete under the right circumstances. A Democrat, Max Cleland, won a Senate race there in 1996 and was defeated in a close race in 2002 by Republican Saxby Chambliss – who then came close to losing his seat to Democrat Jim Martin in 2008. Obama lost Georgia by 5 points in 2008 and 8 in 2012.

After earning the ire of the Tea Party for being too open to compromise, Chambliss announced last week that he wouldn’t run again in ’14. Several Republican congressmen are angling to replace him, including Jack Kingston, Tom Price and Paul Broun and maybe even Phil Gingrey. Each is a doctrinaire Obama-era conservative, and given Georgia’s partisan bent, all could potentially win the general election. But Broun in particular has the potential to wreak havoc for the GOP. A defender of the John Birch Society who once invoked Hitler in describing a national service plan authored by Obama, Broun is a good emotional match for the Obama-era GOP base – and a bad match for general election swing voters, even in Georgia. Gingrey, who pointlessly defended Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments last week, is another potential headache for the GOP.

Republicans should be able to hold on to Chambliss’ seat – and their hopes of posting a net gain of six seats depend on doing so. But with a credible nominee – Rep. John Barrow, who continues to defy the odds in an increasingly GOP-friendly district, for instance – Democrats could capitalize on the nomination of Broun or Gingrey, or another similar candidate.

The story is similar in Alaska, where Republicans have a real chance to knock off first-term Sen. Mark Begich. Mead Treadwell, the state’s GOP lieutenant governor, is eyeing the race and would be a credible candidate. His boss, Gov. Sean Parnell, may end up pursuing it too – and Treadwell has indicated he’d defer to him. Either would be well-positioned to take advantage of Alaska’s partisan leanings and give Begich a run for his money. But Joe Miller, who used Sarah Palin’s support and an infusion of cash from the Tea Party Express to shock Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 GOP primary, appears ready to run too. Miller’s general election campaign was a disaster in ’10, and if Murkowski hadn’t launched and won a write-in campaign, Democrats might well have claimed the seat. Nominate Miller again and Republicans will be flushing away a decent pickup opportunity.

It’s very early in the 2014 cycle. Other surprise retirements – from Democrats and Republicans – are likely in the coming months. The battleground is not yet clearly defined. But to seriously erode the Democrats’ 55-45 edge and have any chance at reclaiming the chamber, Republican leaders must either hope their base is less purity-obsessed than in ’10 or ‘12 – or they must find a way to work around the hysteria and prevent fringe candidates from winning nominations. Which could be a tall order; after all, if the base is still demanding purity and the establishment takes aim at a fringe candidate, it will only make that fringe candidate seem more pure to the base.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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