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GOP fumbles away Senate

As well as things went for the GOP last week, establishment Republicans must know they could’ve gone a lot better. While the Tea Party folks may have brought renewed vigor and energy to the GOP, they also cost their party control of the Senate.

The most obvious flubs came in Colorado, Nevada and Delaware. In Colorado, appointed Sen. Michael Bennet eked out a single-point victory over Republican Tea Party favorite Ken Buck. While Colorado might be a purple state, Buck’s social extremism proved too much for his state’s electorate. GOP establishment favorite Gale Norton may have been a generic Republican, but generic Republicans cleaned up nationwide. She almost certainly would’ve taken the seat from the Democrats.

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In Delaware, long-serving governor and Rep. Mike Castle was headed for an easy victory until Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint and the Tea Party crowd rallied around bona fide nut-job Christine O’Donnell and handed her a stunning primary victory. That ended the race, as O’Donnell barely mustered 40 percent of the November vote.

And in Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) looked to be a dead man walking, until Sharron Angle arrived on the scene. A February Mason-Dixon poll showed Reid getting whooped 52-39 by Sue Lowden, a former chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party. But when Angle — who hilariously proclaimed at a campaign stop that “Government isn’t what our Founding Fathers put into our Constitution” — edged Lowden in the primary, Reid’s moribund campaign was revived. Incumbents simply don’t survive reelect numbers in the 30s. But thanks to the Tea Party, Harry Reid did.

Had those three seats gone Republican, Democrats would still have controlled the 50-50 Senate, thanks to Joe Biden’s tiebreaking vote. 

But Connecticut, too, could’ve swung to the GOP. Democratic nominee Dick Blumenthal was stung early on in a controversy over statements about his Vietnam War service. Had Republicans nominated war hero and former Rep. Rob Simmons, they likely would have parlayed Simmons’s history of winning in hostile Democratic-leaning territory and his military service into a serious run at the seat. Connecticut activists closed their ears to opportunity knocking, and opted for wrestling mogul Linda McMahon. 

Yet the lousy candidates who lost are only half the story. Could a few more million dollars spent on the contested Washington or Colorado seats have made a difference? Maybe — but the GOP was forced to spend heavily in several states that should’ve been safe, cheap and easy pickups.

In Kentucky, Republicans and their allies spent at least $5 million to $6 million making sure extremist Rand Paul won his red-state seat. Had establishment pick Trey Grayson won the nomination, there wouldn’t have been much of a race, and that money could’ve gone elsewhere. 

In Florida, establishment Republicans wanted Gov. Charlie Crist, but the Tea Party crowd pushed him into an Independent bid. While the GOP still held on to the seat, it cost the party and its allies $4 million to $6 million. 

Establishment Republicans did luck out in Illinois, where the Feb. 2 primary was early enough that the Tea Party wasn’t able to mobilize against the relatively moderate Mark Kirk. He won Barack Obama’s old seat by a sliver. And in New Hampshire, the establishment got its preferred candidate in Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, who cruised. Things might’ve looked different had the Tea Party crowd gotten its preferred candidates.

But the damage was real. Harry Reid is still majority leader, and still in the Senate, when by all indications, Senate Republicans should’ve followed their House counterparts into the majority.

Moulitsas is the founder of Daily Kos and author of American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right.

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