A field of candidates whose electoral prospects have been hampered by unforced errors and gaffes. A national political environment which slightly favors their rivals. Openly hoping for their opponents to make a mistake that might rescue them from looming disaster. Sound familiar? In 2012, the GOP wrestled with these conditions. Today, it is the Democrats’ turn to struggle with a virtually identical set of impediments.
In many ways, the 2014 cycle is a mirror image of the 2012 cycle.
In 2012, the national political environment was initially thought to slightly favor Republicans due to the moribund economic recovery which had left voters anxious and discontented. As the economic picture improved over the course of 2012, however, so did Democrats’ electoral prospects. By the late summer of that year, combined with the inherent advantages associated with incumbency, analysts began to lean toward the idea that the national political mood slightly favored Democrats.
Similarly, 2014 was thought to be a year in which Republicans would be heavily favored; not merely because a gerrymandered map ensured that the House of Representatives was not in play and an overextended class of red state Senators who were vulnerable to a GOP challenge, but because the dynamics of the “in” party’s sixth year midterm usually benefits the opposition. Another GOP midterm wave, many reasoned, could be in the offing. But as summer faded into autumn, that wave hadn’t yet materialized which led some to suspect that it never would. Republicans do still enjoy a favorable national environment, but one not nearly as favorable as many had predicted it might in the early part of the year.
Republicans also suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds in the 2012 cycle. Candidates gaffed their way into losing winnable races in a number of political battlefields, most famously in the Missouri and Indiana Senate races where GOP candidate’s inartful comments about rape ensured that Democrats would emerge victorious on Election Day.
In 2014, it is the Democratic Party’s turn to field a slate of weak, untested, and gaffe-prone candidates.
In Montana, where Democrats originally sought to rescue their electoral prospects by replacing a weak incumbent with a fresh face, the party’s hopes utterly imploded when that fresh face proved to be a serial plagiarizer. His ultimate replacement, chosen by the party at convention, is a self-described anarcho-socialist.
In the effort to retain Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat, Hawkeye State Democrats, too, have nominated a candidate prone to misstatements. From mocking agricultural professionals while fundraising in Texas, to claiming he is a farmer himself (he isn’t), to posting pictures of English orchards on his Facebook page as part of an appeal to Iowan natives, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley has thoroughly alienated the state’s agricultural community.
In Kentucky, the Republican Party’s most vulnerable Senate incumbent, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, looked like he faced a stiff challenge from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. That challenge became significantly less threatening when her campaign was exposed for, as the AP reported, using “a Ukrainian male model posing as an ashen-faced coal miner in an early newspaper ad.” She further lost credibility among Bluegrass State voters this summer when she insisted that Israel’s surface-to-air missile defense system was one of the primary reasons why Hamas militants’ underground tunnel systems had not threatened the Jewish State during the war in Gaza.
Democrats have been hoping for a new Todd Akin to emerge from the GOP field to provide their party with another opportunity to leverage a debilitating gaffe, but that opportunity has just not materialized. In fact, the Republican establishment has done a stellar job tamping down bids from exotic candidates and ensuring that consistent, measured, unexciting GOP prospects win their party’s nominations.
“There is no denying that I would feel a bit more confident of our chances of keeping the Senate if we had more candidates running on the fringe of the party like we saw in years past with Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock,” Democratic Strategist Jim Manley told The Washington Times.
This, too, is a familiar condition.
Republicans spent much of the 2012 campaign cycle hoping for, even elevating, Barack Obama’s mistakes as campaign-dooming missteps. From pouncing on Obama’s gaffes ranging from “the public sector is doing fine,” to “you didn’t build that,” to predicting a backlash against the president for implementing aspects of the DREAM Act via executive order, to his response to the Benghazi terror attack; the GOP was forever in search of a game-changing event which would shift the political momentum back in their favor. The Romney campaign was never rescued by any of his opponent’s mistakes.
Today, the Democrats are fruitlessly wishing for Republicans to misstep. From inventing a fictitious plan hatched by a supposed cabal of Republicans aimed at impeaching the president to… well… inventing a fictitious plan hatched by a cabal of Republicans aimed at shutting down the government, Democrats are desperate for Republicans to rescue them from their fates.
Those who do not learn from history’s mistakes are, the dictum goes, doomed to repeat them. For all the handwringing from the commentary class, the GOP did learn from their 2012 blunders. Democrats, however, did not. Today, the president’s party’s strategy consists primarily of hoping for external events to save them. It may prove to be an agonizingly long wait.