Missouri’s Republican senator Roy Blunt spoke for the angels earlier this week when he observed that his party is remarkably adept at screwing things up. Responding to widespread reports that the GOP has a better than 50 percent chance of taking control of the Senate next January, Blunt quipped that “if anybody can mess this up, my side has the total capacity to.”
One imagines that tens of millions of heads started to nod in agreement. When, last year, it became clear that 2014 should by rights be a good year for conservatives, the more cynical among them began to imagine that it was therefore about time for the party’s leadership to scour the country in search of the most unlikeable, inadequate, unpredictable figures that they could possibly find. Somewhere, I supposed acidly, there was a farm that specialized in raising registered Republicans with incurable Tourette’s and a penchant for ventilating on the subjects of rape and armed revolution. From the latest litter would the party draw its candidates and, as in years past, the rest would be history.
And yet, in this cycle, it has been the Democrats who have repeatedly erred and the Republicans who have stayed happily out of trouble. Thus far at least, there has been no Todd Akin to sully the GOP’s efforts, nor have any of the party’s other aspirants served as lightning rods for controversy or as exemplars of the asinine. If 2014 has taught observers of the political scene anything at all, it should be that however ideologically polarized the country may seem, candidates still matter — on both sides of the aisle. In recent years, Bloomberg’s David Weigel has taken a wry delight in appending an inappropriate hashtag to instances of conservative deficiency and Republican dissension, sardonically marking the movement’s most egregious mistakes with the words “#demsindisarray.” Now, however, many “Dems” really are in “disarray” — the party’s candidates having stepped of late onto rake after rake after rake. That, despite the frequency of their missteps, Democrats are still in such a healthy position should worry the Right and thrill the Left — if Republicans do end up taking the Senate, they will likely do so by a whisker, and they will be unlikely to hold onto it in 2016 — but it should also tell us that there is nothing written in the stars that guarantees that conservatives must be incompetent and ineloquent. Maybe, just maybe, the messenger matters?
Were an alien visitor to have descended from the heavens in order to survey this election season, he would likely have concluded that the American Left struggles to find proficient representatives. In Montana, the Democratic party lost its first candidate to a plagiarism scandal and, inexplicably, chose as his replacement an erratic Communist sympathizer whose idea of a fun afternoon is to record and post rambling black-and-white videos of herself to her YouTube page. In the course of her many “vlogs,” Amanda Curtis has mocked women who believe that they will be given a chance against sexual predators if they are armed; disdained “the family,” “natural law,” and “Christians”; and confessed how difficult she finds it not to “punch” fellow lawmakers in the face. She is currently losing by 19 points, and it is only by the grace of pronounced media bias that she has not been transformed into the public face of the entire party.
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, poor old Martha Coakley has doggedly continued to be . . . well, to be Martha Coakley, with all that that entails. Whatever it was that inspired the Democratic party in one of the bluest states in the country to give the woman who almost sank Obamacare a second shot, the powers-that-be will almost certainly now be bitterly regretting their choice. Republican Charlie Baker is winning by nine points.
Even in the closer races, it is Democrats, and not Republicans, who have injured themselves. Iowa’s Bruce Braley kicked off his campaign insulting the voters of his state by loftily informing a room full of trial lawyers that Senator Chuck Grassley was just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Later, visiting the state in support of Braley, First Lady Michelle Obama repeatedly introduced her comrade as “Bruce Bailey” — even going so far as to send attendees to the wrong campaign website — and then suggested admiringly that Braley had been a former Marine. He has never served.
The hits have kept coming. Colorado’s Senator Mark Udall has served primarily as a salutary reminder that too much of a good thing can be fatal, his obsessive reliance on the “war on women” set piece having provoked friends and critics alike to christen him “Mark Uterus,” and the usually left-leaning Denver Post to have not only endorsed his opponent, Cory Gardner, but to have accused the “obnoxious” Udall of lying, of “trying to frighten voters,” and of running a campaign that represents “an insult to those he seeks to convince.” His supporters have done little better. A hit-job on Gardner put out by the sports website Deadspin in October was quickly picked up by an array of progressive journalists and Democratic power players, all of whom were forced to eat crow just a few hours later when the dispatch was discovered to be downright false. Michelle Obama’s trip to Colorado, meanwhile, was not a great deal more successful than her foray into Iowa. Stumping for Udall, the first lady described the Democrat as a “fifth-generation Coloradan,” and explained to the crowd that this gave him a particular insight into the state. Alas, Obama had mixed up Udall with his opponent. Udall is from Arizona, went to college in Massachusetts, and moved to Colorado as an adult; Gardner’s family, by contrast, has lived in Colorado since 1886. The flub was evidently contagious. Yesterday, Udall told his supporters that, in America “at our best, we judge people by the content of their color.” Gardner is now winning by four points.
Over in Arkansas, Mark Pryor has stumbled from mistake to shining mistake. In the course of his bid, Pryor, who won his Senate seat after his father retired in 2002, has accused his Iraq-veteran opponent of feeling “entitled” to be sent to Washington because of his military service; has proven incapable of answering simple questions about Ebola, despite having made the disease a live issue in the race; and, rather oddly, averred during a debate that the term “middle class” covers anyone whose income is under $200,000 per year. (Not only is this definitionally incorrect, the median household income in Arkansas is $39,919.) In and of itself, this lattermost claim does not greatly matter. But mistakes tend to gain traction when they confirm the preexisting conceptions of the electorate, and when they tie into current lines of attack. As the scion of a family of politicians that has been involved in Arkansas politics for more than half a century, one suspects that Pryor could have done without the error. Similarly afflicted has been Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, whose description of Louisiana’s parishes as “counties” was innocuous enough in a vacuum, but, nevertheless, played into the effective Republican charge that she lives in Washington D.C. and has lost touch with the state she represents.
Unforced errors have been routine. This week, North Carolina’s Senator Kay Hagan simply refused to turn up for a debate with her opponent, prompting mockery on both left and right. Awkwardly, the debate went ahead anyway, broadcasting, in the acrid words of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, an “hour-long conversation with just the Republican candidate on TV for an hour, uncontested so [he] can tell you what he thinks without any time constraints and without anybody rudely interrupting.” In her own unchallenged sit-down with the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes three times refused to answer whether she had voted for Barack Obama, simultaneously pretending that to inform voters whether she had cast her ballot for the man she served as a delegate would undermine the “sanctity of the ballot box” and informing viewers that she had voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. Quite the trick!
And then there is Wendy Davis, the Elmer Fudd of the 2014 cycle. As it has dawned on Davis that the excitement of the social-justice-and-elective-eugenics crowd is not heavily represented in a state such as Texas, she has become increasingly unhinged, not only drawing gratuitous attention to her opponent’s physical disability, but refusing to answer whether or not he was “exploiting” that injury for electoral gain. At times, Davis has given in to rank desperation, stopping short of accusing Abbott of wishing to bring back slavery — but only just. “What’s at stake in this election,” Davis claimed earlier in the week, is an “interracial marriage ban” and a “poll tax” — the former because Greg Abbott refused to answer whether he would have felt obliged to defend one had he been attorney general in the 1960s; the latter because Abbott supports the state’s voter-ID law. Previously, Davis had rendered her candidacy somewhat pointless, caving on the question of open carry, ruling out the tax increase that her supporters believe is necessary to fund increased education spending, and even deciding late in the game that she would have supported the law she rose to prominence opposing if it had been superficially different.
To make matters even worse, this display has been set against the backdrop of a president who will not — and perhaps cannot — remain tactfully quiet for the good of his party. This has been a midterm season that has lacked any substantial political debate whatsoever, the single theme that has united the Democrats’ effort being, “I am not President Obama,” which collective disavowal has evidently proven to be too much for our vainglorious commander-in-chief. Repeatedly, Obama has injected himself into the fracas, running behind the naysayers shouting, tears streaming down his face, that “whatever they say, it is about me.” Reacting to his party’s insistence that their Senate candidates were not running on the president’s policies, Obama told a crowd in Illinois that they should “make no mistake,” because his “policies are on the ballot, every single one of them.” Equally wounded by the current crop’s desire to distance themselves from him personally, Obama assured voters that, really, his party’s nominees were all “strong allies and supporters of me,” “folks who vote with me,” and people who “have supported my agenda in Congress.” And, earlier in the week, Obama explained that a Michelle Nunn victory in Georgia would mean that Democrats would “keep control of the Senate and that means that we can keep on doing some good work.”
With friends like these . . .
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.