One issue that could create a snag is McConnell’s own 2014 race for re-election. He has been moving aggressively since 2010 to ensure that he does not draw a primary challenger, and that has meant tying himself more closely to tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — who won his primary despite McConnell’s support for his more mainstream opponent. A desire to continue tacking to the right could factor into McConnell’s calculus on whether he should pursue a greater spirit of cooperation with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
McConnell’s lost opportunity Tuesday brings back memories of when Republicans came close to taking back the Senate in 2010. While the tea party helped Republicans win control of the House, the conservative movement was not able to put candidates in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada over the finish line. If they had, Republicans would have secured 50 votes in the Senate, a minority only by virtue of not holding the vice presidency.
Experts also chalk up Republicans’ coming up short to a slate of relatively strong Democratic candidates and the fact that turnout, which favors Democrats, is stronger in a presidential election.
“This is not an all-star list of Republican candidates ... and Democrats have done a decent job of recruiting,” said Sarah Binder, a Congressional expert and professor at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Republicans picked up at least one seat in Nebraska, but lost seats they held in Indiana, Massachusetts, and Maine. They also were unable to flip vulnerable Democrat-held seats, such as the tightly contested Virginia Senate seat won by former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.
Binder noted that Democrats also got a big boost with the retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), which allowed them to, in essence, win the seat because independent former Gov. Angus King is expected to caucus with Democrats.