Senate Republicans’ election lesson is to work on fielding better candidates

Senate Republicans spent much of Wednesday behind closed doors as they pondered strategies for overcoming last week’s dismal performance at the polls.

The emerging consensus: They need better candidates.

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Republicans lost every toss-up race for the Senate this year. The most competitive contest they won was in Arizona, which has not elected a Democratic senator since 1988.

At the start of the election cycle, political handicappers favored Republicans to capture the Senate majority. National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) also predicted they would prevail.

Instead, Senate Democrats picked up three GOP-held seats and lost only one of their own for a net gain of two, leaving Republican senators to wonder where things went wrong.

“This is the first time we’re gathered and that’s the nature of the conversation among Republican senators,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who was elected Wednesday to head the NRSC for the next election cycle.

The chief lesson GOP senators are taking away from the rout is they need to find more appealing candidates, not necessarily overhaul their policy stances.

Moran said the party would have to re-evaluate its 2012 strategy of not intervening in primaries.

“Having people who fit the desires of the voters of a state, as far as the Senate races, is critical,” Moran said. “We need to have a discussion among ourselves, which we will have, about what role the campaign committee plays in primaries.”

Moran’s colleagues want the NRSC to do a better job of finding candidates. Republican losses in red states such as Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota have been attributed to Democrats having the more appealing nominee.

“If you analyze the Senate races one at a time, and the presidential race, for that matter, there’s a lot of it that’s personality driven,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). “The people in the middle, people who really decide the election, aren’t moved that much by philosophy, but are moved by personalities.

“Recruitment is critical,” he said.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said, “It’s blocking and tackling. What do I mean by that? It’s good candidates. You can never underestimate the significance of a good candidate.

“We had an outstanding candidate in Nebraska,” Johanns said of Sen.-elect Deb Fischer, the only Republican contender to win a Democrat-held seat.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) has explained her success by pointing to a strong candidate class. She has also cited the party’s endorsement and support of candidates in primary races as an important ingredient in the formula.

Republican senators say they have fallen behind Democrats in the use of social media. While Democrats and liberals successfully used sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest to mobilize support, Republicans relied too much on old-fashioned phone banking, they said.

“We’re just doing some soul-searching in terms of our messaging,” said Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.). “I think the Democrat Party has really learned how to effectively use social media to reach specific groups.

“We made a zillion phone calls. I’m not sure phone calls are the way to go when the kids are texting instead of answering the phone at home,” he said.

Retiring Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said one of the lessons of 2012 is that “candidate selection is very important.”

Lugar was considered a lock to win a general-election match-up against Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), but instead lost his primary race against state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, whom Donnelly defeated.

The question of whether and how to manage primaries plagued Cornyn during his four-year tenure as NRSC chairman.

Cornyn battled with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leading conservative, throughout the 2010 cycle over who should carry the party’s standard in various battlegrounds.

Cornyn initially backed mainstream Republican candidates in Kentucky and Florida who lost to conservatives endorsed by DeMint. Those conservatives went on to win the general election: Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

The NRSC initially favored former Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) over potential challenger Pat Toomey before Specter switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party. One GOP aide recalled a meeting early in the 2010 cycle when NRSC staff predicted Toomey, now a senator, could not win statewide in Pennsylvania.

Cornyn decided after the 2010 cycle he would not attempt to pick winners and losers in GOP primaries. But that strategy met with decidedly mixed results, notably in Missouri, where Democrats had more influence over the Republican contest than the NRSC did.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Democratic groups spent more than $1 million to boost Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) standing among conservatives and help him win the primary.

Moran says he will not let that happen again.

“In a number of instances over the last couple election cycles, we’ve seen where Democrats have actually helped pick Republican nominees in primaries. We can’t tolerate that. Republicans need to decide who their candidates are,” he said.

The Republican angst over picking candidates in the next election cycle has been a source of amusement for some Democrats.

When told Republicans would focus on recruiting better candidates, DSCC executive director Guy Cecil quipped, “Good, they can’t do any worse.”

Republican lawmakers disagree on whether their Election Day woes were due to their policy positions, such as a hard-line stance against raising taxes to lower the deficit. 

Coats, for one, thinks Republicans should have earlier signaled a willingness to compromise on including new tax revenues as part of a deficit-reduction package.

“We should have been talking about generating revenue as part of the package. Eventually the ‘Committee of 12’ got to that point, but it was too late in the game,” he said of the 2011 deficit-reduction supercommittee. “Because they killed us on that.”

But Risch took a different view.

“You’ll get an argument both ways on that. A lot of the base thinks just the opposite,” he said. “Believe me, in Idaho there are very few people telling me I ought to come up here and raise taxes on anybody.”