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Weak GOP Candidates May Need More Than a Good Year

Tillis hopes to unseat Hagan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans have the wind at their backs this year. But not every GOP nominee is taking advantage of that dynamic. As usual, some candidates are under-performing, proving once again that candidates and the campaigns they choose to run actually matter.

That should come as no surprise to anyone who watched Republican Senate nominees Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana implode in 2012 or Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell and Colorado Republican Ken Buck lose in 2010.

But this year, the problem children are not candidates foisted on the party by the Club for Growth or tea party groups. This cycle, the problem is a handful of candidates favored by most in the Republican “establishment.” They looked like strong nominees (some even like slam dunks) a year before Election Day, but they haven’t acted that way.

In Georgia, GOP Senate nominee David Perdue continued to try to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when he said that he was “proud” of his record of outsourcing jobs.

There clearly are benefits to individual businesses and consumers from outsourcing certain business activities, but the middle of a campaign is not the time to debate business strategy. Good candidates — experienced candidates — don’t fall into those kinds of traps.

Democrat Michelle Nunn has her own albatrosses — President Barack Obama and her Democratic label in Georgia — but Perdue has given her a campaign message that could help make the election about the Republican nominee rather than about Obama.

In Kansas, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts did the same thing when he allowed his re-election bid to be about him rather than about the president, the Affordable Care Act and the drumbeat of bad news over the past few months.

You would think someone who has been in and around politics for as long as Roberts has — more than 30 years in Congress — might have seen what happened to Senator Richard G. Lugar when his residence and lack of time back home became an issue. Roberts easily could have inoculated himself against the attacks that eventually came.

But he didn’t, and a campaign operative didn’t help matters when he responded to a question about the senator’s post-primary plans by indicating Roberts would be returning “home” — to Virginia, that is — to rest up.

South Dakota GOP Senate nominee Mike Rounds also has allowed his race to become competitive — much too competitive if you talk to Republican strategists and anyone who knows anything about campaign strategy — by refusing to run “negative” ads against either of his two main opponents, Democrat Rick Weiland and independent Larry Pressler, a former Republican senator.

Rounds apparently learned the wrong lesson from his 2002 gubernatorial primary victory, when he upset two better-known, better-funded opponents who spent their time attacking each other.

In this race, Rounds should have been able (and may still be able) to paint Pressler and Weiland as two peas in a pod who support Obama. Instead, Rounds has lost support to the former senator, creating the possibility of a wild finish in a very Republican state in a very Republican year when control of the Senate is at stake.

Finally, while Thom Tillis may end up defeating Sen. Kay Hagan in the North Carolina contest, the Republican challenger’s fundraising has been remarkably disappointing. Being a strong candidate requires the ability to raise lots of money, and that isn’t something Tillis has done.

Through June 30, he had raised $3.5 million from individuals and $614,000 from political action committees. In contrast, Hagan had raised $10.4 million from individuals and $2.3 million from PACs.

Of course, it’s not entirely fair to compare Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, to Hagan, a sitting senator who has looked vulnerable for the entire cycle. But Tillis’ fundraising also doesn’t look very good compared with Arkansas Republican Rep. Tom Cotton’s. At the end of the second quarter, Cotton, who also is challenging an incumbent, had raised $5.5 million from individuals and another $1 million from political action committees.

Republicans sympathetic to Tillis point out that GOP candidates in the Tar Heel State generally have a tough time fundraising — even Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr raised only $5.1 million from individuals in his (successful) 2010 re-election race against opponent Elaine Marshall — and there is certainly some truth to that.

But Tillis simply had to find some way in a year when control of the Senate is at stake to ramp up his fundraising. His weakness in that area allowed Hagan and her allies to pummel him immediately after his primary victory, defining him in an unflattering way. And the candidate has had a difficult time redefining himself to state voters.

A recent injection of cash from the NRSC and that nice partisan breeze at his back could help Tillis squeeze past Hagan. But the challenger’s fundraising failures can’t be ignored.

Some anti-establishment conservatives undoubtedly are chuckling at the problems of these GOP nominees. They have that right, certainly. But they shouldn’t kid themselves into believing their candidates would be in better shape. Milton Wolf, after all, is not the answer to what ails Republicans in Kansas.

Related stories:

Why Republicans Must Win the Senate in 2014

North Carolina: The GOP’s Expensive Gamble

New DSCC Ad Hits Thom Tillis on Women’s Health

What If I’m Wrong About GOP Flipping at Least 7 Seats?

Fight for Senate Control Down to Five States

NRSC Shifts Resources to Six States

Independents Could Control Power in Senate

Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat

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