5 Tea Partyers who could lose reelection next week

Swept in during the 2010 wave, these five GOPers might be looking for new work after Election Day

Published October 30, 2014 1:40PM (EDT)

With 21 Democratic-held Senate seats up this cycle -- 10 of which are either seriously contested or likely to flip to the Republicans -- it's hardly surprising that the bulk of the midterm conversation focuses on the likelihood of a GOP Senate takeover.

Of course, voters will also elect governors in 36 states and all 435 House districts. And though Democrats will undoubtedly sustain the greatest losses on Election Day, a number of Republicans swept in during the Tea Party wave of 2010 face difficult reelection fights this year. Some confront voter anger over ideological overreach, while others are simply looking at a midterm electorate that may not be hospitable to Democrats, but is unlikely to be as Tea Party-friendly as the 2010 electorate.

This morning, Salon examines five members of the Tea Party class of 2010 -- four governors and one congressman -- who may find themselves looking for new work five days from now. They each have viable paths to securing reelection, but they've drawn formidable challengers and are at grave risk of putting a damper on what will otherwise probably be a good night for the Republicans.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott

Rick Scott, an anti-Obamacare crusader and onetime healthcare CEO, shocked the GOP establishment four years ago when he defeated Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Scott's background overseeing the largest Medicare fraud in U.S. history wasn't quite the résumé the GOP was looking for in its gubernatorial nominee, and his nomination left many Republicans bitter; McCollum refused to endorse Scott in the general election. Democratic nominee Alex Sink kept the race fiercely competitive, but Scott managed to eke out a 1-point win in a very good GOP year.

Governing as a hard-right conservative on issues like welfare, high speed rail, voter ID, the death penalty, and the state's "stand your ground" law, Scott never endeared himself to the state's voters, and he instantly became a prime Democratic target for 2014. Democrats cheered former Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to join the party and mount a campaign against Scott, and early polling showed Crist with a double-digit lead over his successor. A wave of negative advertising and outside cash helped Scott narrow the gap and even take a narrow lead in some polls, however, and the race has been a nail-biter for months. After a nasty and vitriolic campaign, polls show that voters harbor ill will toward both candidates, and it's a bit up in the air whom they'll send to Tallahassee. RealClearPolitics' polling average gives Crist a 1-point lead.

Florida Rep. Steve Southerland

Another Sunshine State Republican may also fall victim to voter backlash this year. Running as an unabashed conservative in 2010, Steve Southerland knocked off 14-year Democratic congressman Allen Boyd in a Florida Panhandle-based district. Southerland won just 53 percent of the vote in his 2012 reelection campaign, and Democrats scored a major coup when Gwen Graham, daughter of former governor and Sen. Bob Graham, agreed to take Southerland on in 2014.

National Republicans express dismay at the campaign Southerland has run against Graham, privately intimating that he hasn't effectively responded to her television attack ads and cringing at his campaign stump stumbles, including his appearance at a men-only fundraiser. Borrowing from the GOP's standard playbook, Southerland portrays Graham as a liberal lackey for the Obama administration and Nancy Pelosi, but it's unclear if  that strategy will work. Even as Republicans talk up the possibility of matching their post-World War II majority this year, this is one race they fear could slip away from them.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage

Despite polls indicating a double-digit lead over independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Libby Mitchell, Maine GOPer Paul LePage barely won the state's 2010 gubernatorial election, edging Cutler by less than 2 points. Elected with just 38 percent of the vote, LePage boasts deep support among rural Mainers but has never garnered majority support among the state's residents. His unhinged rhetoric, sweeping opposition to environmental protections, criticism of child labor laws, and stormy relationship with the state Legislature left many observers wondering how LePage could possibly secure a second term.

But another four years of LePage is far from inconceivable. Cutler is running again, as is Democratic congressman Mike Michaud. Cutler has run far behind LePage and Michaud, unable to reprise his strong showing in 2010. But he has refused to drop out of the race, and threatens to act as a spoiler. A shock poll from the Portland Press Herald last week underscored that possibility, finding LePage with a 10-point lead over Michaud. That poll didn't mesh with other surveys showing a much closer race, but the very fact that the ultraconservative governor is very much in this race has Democrats up in arms. Amid mounting pressure to withdraw, Cutler called a press conference in which he vowed to stay in the race, but acknowledged that his chances of victory were slim and urged Mainers to "vote their conscience." Within hours, independent Sen. Angus King took that advice to heart, switching his endorsement from Cutler to Michaud.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

After defeating Democrat Tom Barrett in 2010, Scott Walker immediately pursued a hardcore conservative agenda as Wisconsin's new governor. His anti-union legislation restricting the collective bargaining rights of public employees sparked mass protests and an unsuccessful recall campaign, and Walker also joined other GOP governors around the country in signing conservative legislation on issues like abortion and voter ID. Undaunted by Walker's victory in his 2012 recall race against Barrett, Democrats once again trained their sights on the Tea Party favorite and potential 2016 presidential candidate, recruiting former business executive Mary Burke to run against him.

Walker was never going to glide to reelection in a state that in 2012 elected progressive Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the nation's first openly gay U.S. senator. Moreover, his recent flubs over the minimum wage have refocused attention on his anti-labor views, prompting Democrats and the labor community to redouble their efforts to defeat the governor. While a Marquette poll released yesterday gave Walker a 7-point lead, most other polls show a dead heat, and Walker's recent spat with Republican Governor's Association chairman Chris Christie over an alleged lack of sufficient support from the RGA suggests that the governor feels far from secure.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback

Elected by a 31-point margin in 2010, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback shouldn't be vulnerable this year. This is rock-ribbed Republican Kansas, after all, and it's a midterm year that generally favors the GOP. But the disastrous budgetary consequences of Brownback's tax cuts inspired an anti-conservative rebellion in the state, with many moderate Republicans abandoning ship and endorsing Brownback's Democratic challenger, Paul Davis.

Early polls showed Davis with a surprisingly strong lead, although the race was bound to tighten given Kansas' deep GOP roots. Still, Brownback has narrowly trailed in most surveys since Labor Day, and RealClearPolitics' polling average gives Davis a 1-point lead. Like the state's Senate race between GOPer Pat Roberts and independent Greg Orman, this race will likely go down to the wire.

By Luke Brinker

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