5 biggest midterm flameouts

Once touted as top-tier candidates, these pols are headed for defeat in six days

By Luke Brinker
Published October 29, 2014 1:05PM (EDT)

With candidates running neck-and-neck in 10 Senate races and 12 gubernatorial elections, the midterm map features no shortage of fiercely competitive contests. As happens every cycle, though, races that once looked like potential nail-biters have clearly broken for one candidate or another, with their outcomes in little doubt just six days before Election Day.

This morning, Salon looks at five candidates -- each once touted as a top-tier recruit -- for whom a 2014 victory just isn't in the stars. In most cases, the candidates aren't losing because they've run egregiously poor campaigns. Instead, the political dynamics of their states generally favor their opponents. Most of the candidates' flameouts illustrate the limits of a good campaign; it's excruciatingly difficult to overcome what political observers call the fundamentals of a race. That didn't stop some pundits from thinking these candidates could.

Terri Lynn Land

When six-term Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan announced in March 2013 that he would not seek reelection, Republicans smelled a prime pickup opportunity. The GOP's top choices for the seat were Rep. Dave Camp and Oakland County District Court Judge Kimberly Small, but neither opted to mount bids. Former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, however, did step forward, and looked like a credible opponent to Rep. Gary Peters, the Democratic nominee.

By this winter, Land was running ahead of Peters in many polls, and forecasters considered her a roughly even-money bet to claim Levin's seat. But in the months that followed, Land reminded Republicans why she wasn't their first choice, as she declined to stake out public positions on key policy issues and made bizarre messaging and advertising choices. Her lackluster campaign, combined with Michigan's mostly blue hue, allowed Peters to become the runaway favorite to succeed Levin, and he now leads Land by double digits in the polls. While Land would always have faced a tough race, her early lead notwithstanding -- Michigan hasn't elected a Republican U.S. senator since 1994 -- it's not as if 2014 has proven a bad year for Republicans in Michigan; GOP Gov. Rick Snyder is a slight favorite in his race against Democratic challenger Mark Schauer.

Monica Wehby

Outsiders may hear "Oregon" and think "Portlandia," but the state isn't quite the liberal bastion many assume. Democrat Jeff Merkley barely defeated GOP Sen. Gordon Smith in 2008, a strong Democratic year, and George W. Bush even made a serious play for the state's seven electoral votes in 2004. So when Monica Wehby, a physician with moderate views on social issues, launched her campaign against Merkley, some commentators argued that she'd give the senator a run for his money.

"Wehby," Washington Post columnist George Will wrote in July, "not only has two X chromosomes but also supports abortion rights and the right of states to recognize same-sex marriages, which complicates the Democratic Party’s continuing accusation that Republicans wage 'war on women.'" But despite Wehby's compelling biography and efforts to distance herself from the national GOP, her campaign never really gained traction, in large part because Merkley hasn't committed the kinds of political errors that would be required for an increasingly Democratic state to toss out a Democratic senator. Although Wehby backers promised that the race would tighten as Election Day drew near, Merkley never lost his double digit lead.

Mike McFadden

Sen. Al Franken was only declared the winner of Minnesota's 2008 Senate race after a recount that dragged on for more than half a year. Despite the narrowness of that victory, however, Franken built up a reservoir of goodwill in the state, largely thanks to the former "Saturday Night Live" comedian's workhorse approach to the Senate. Still, Republicans maintained high hopes of knocking Franken out this year, and in wealthy GOP businessman Mike McFadden, the party establishment got its preferred candidate.

Much like Merkley, Franken boasted a healthy lead over McFadden in early polling, but pundits like National Journal's Josh Kraushaar predicted that the race was bound to tighten. McFadden made no real stumbles over the course of the campaign, but the only state to vote against Ronald Reagan in his 1984 landslide is poised to send Franken back to Washington. He leads McFadden by more than 10 points in RealClearPolitics' polling average.

Natalie Tennant

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller's retirement announcement portended an uphill battle for Democrats to hold onto his seat, and the candidacy of the establishment-backed GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of a former West Virginia governor, put the Republicans in a good position to flip the seat. But Democrats celebrated Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's entry into the race, hoping that she, like Kentucky's Alison Lundergan Grimes and Georgia's Michelle Nunn, could keep a Southern Senate race competitive.

It was not to be. While West Virginia was once solidly Democratic, backing Michael Dukakis in his landslide 1988 loss to George H. W. Bush, its conservative white voters harbor deep antipathy for President Barack Obama, who lost every single county in the state in his 2012 reelection campaign. Running against the Obama administration's so-called war on coal, Capito has tarred Tennant as a rubber stamp for the Obama White House. It's safe to bet that Capito will receive a job promotion next week; she leads Tennant by nearly 17 points in RealClearPolitics' average of polls.

Ed FitzGerald

When Ohio voters overturned Republican Gov. John Kasich's anti-union law restricting collective bargaining in 2011, Kasich looked deeply wounded -- and highly vulnerable ahead of his 2014 reelection campaign. Democrats recruited Cuyahoga County executive Ed FitzGerald to take on Kasich, and early polls indicated that Kasich had a real fight on his hands. But revelations that in 2012, police caught FitzGerald in a parking lot at 4:30 a.m. in a car with a woman who wasn't his wife and that the Democrat had driven on a suspended driver's license led FitzGerald to plummet in the polls. He hasn't recovered, and Kasich now leads by more than 20 points. While Kasich's embrace of Medicaid expansion and his shift in tone after voters rebuked his anti-union law in 2011 may well have pushed him over the top anyway, Democrats will likely look at this race as one that got away from them wholly unnecessarily.

Luke Brinker

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