The media and the Republican establishment have spent much of this election cycle trumpeting the narrative that the Tea Party is dead. After establishment-backed candidates won the primaries in key Senate battlegrounds such as Arkansas, North Carolina, Georgia, and Iowa, the GOP is bullish on its chances to capture the Senate majority this fall and end Harry Reid’s reign of terror as Majority Leader. Citing examples of flawed Tea Party candidates such as 2010’s Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell—who lost a winnable Senate race in Delaware that year—establishment Republicans believe this year’s much more electable slate of candidates will avoid such costly mistakes this time around.
But it hasn’t all been rainbows and butterflies, as they say. Overlooked by most is the very real struggle many entrenched Republican incumbents have had in retaining their party’s nomination this year. The leading example would be Sen. Thad Cochran, who has represented Mississippi since 1978. Despite Mississippi’s tendency to return incumbents to Washington until they retire or die, Sen. Cochran came in a close second to his Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel, in Mississippi’s June 3rd primary. In the runoff that occurred three weeks later, Cochran had to bring African-American voters to the polls just to squeak by McDaniel by a margin of less than two points. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has been active in Tennessee politics since his first run for governor in 1972, survived a challenge from a conservative upstart by just nine points earlier this month. He didn’t even manage to receive an outright majority of the votes. Now, a nine-point victory would be a relative landslide in a competitive general election, but for a two-term Republican senator in a solid red state running against a woefully underfunded primary challenger, that’s a certifiably terrible showing.
And let’s not forget about Sen. Pat Roberts, who has represented Kansas in Congress since 1981 and served as a senator since 1997. Sen. Roberts has been in trouble this entire election cycle, with many in the state upset about the fact that he lives full-time in Northern Virginia and doesn’t own a home in Kansas. In a year when Congressional approval is at an appallingly low 13.6% and the mood among the electorate is more anti-incumbent that anything else, not having any physical ties to the state you’ve represented in Congress for 33 years is a bad, bad deal. But, in spite of all this, Sen. Roberts won his primary challenge earlier this month, albeit by just a little over seven points. He, too, failed to win an outright majority.
And now, according to a poll released two days ago by Public Policy Polling, Sen. Roberts is in even bigger trouble. It seems that winning his primary contest did him more harm than good, as he is polling at only 32% in a four-way contest against Democrat Chad Taylor, Independent Greg Orman, and Libertarian Randall Batson. Even with 17% of voters undecided, if you add up the other three candidates’ poll numbers, you get 51%. Forget Sen. Roberts’s decidedly lousy 27%/44% approval/disapproval rating; 51% of voters have already made up their minds that he shouldn’t be reelected.
But wait; it gets worse. If you take the third-party candidates out of the equation, Sen. Roberts leads his Democratic opponent, but only by a margin of 43%-39%. Now, it’s bad news for any incumbent if he polls below 50%, but for a Republican incumbent in Kansas(!), 43% is practically a death knell. And here’s the real kicker: in a hypothetical matchup between Roberts and Orman, a businessman from Olathe running what was once considered a long-shot campaign, Orman leads by a shocking 43%-33%. And from there, it just gets embarrassing for Roberts. When the poll respondents were asked if they think Sen. Roberts considers his home to be in Kansas or D.C., only 30% said Kansas. A full 50% of respondents believe he considers D.C. to be his home. And when they were asked if Roberts spends enough time in Kansas, respondents said no at a 61% clip. A measly 18% said yes.
So, what does all of this mean? First and foremost, this serves as a clear illustration of the American electorate’s frustration with any and all incumbents in this election cycle. Just ask Eric Cantor. (Or read this great piece by my hero Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics). But to me, at least, there is a more pressing concern raised by Sen. Roberts’s struggles. The Republicans have a very real shot at taking the Senate this fall. With President Obama’s sagging approval ratings and Democratic incumbents running in deep red states, the electoral environment is almost entirely in the GOP’s favor. But in order for there to be a Republican Senate majority next January, the GOP needs to hold on to every seat they already hold. Since most of those seats are in places like Alabama, Wyoming, South Carolina, and Idaho, that shouldn’t be a problem. But if Pat Roberts pulls off the remarkable feat of losing a United States Senate seat in Kansas that has only been in Democratic hands for 8 years since it was created in 1861, it could all be for naught.