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Perfect Storm for Democratic Pickups

Hard work, strong candidates and Republican slip-ups helped the party gain two Senate seats

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Heitkamp and King, center, speaking with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy at the Capitol on Wednesday, helped add to the Democratic advantage in the Senate. The party’s gains rested on a number of elements, including strong candidates and GOP mistakes.

While most members of the national media have focused on President Barack Obama’s narrow popular vote/substantial electoral vote victory, the far more stunning results occurred in the Senate.

Though defending 23 seats to the GOP’s 10, Democrats added two more seats last week (counting Maine independent Angus King). That was a mind-boggling result, especially considering the large number of Democratic open seats and where the two parties’ prospects were a little more than a year ago.

The Democratic gain can’t be traced to one factor. Instead, it rested on a number of elements.

First, obviously, was a strong Democratic class of challengers and open-seat nominees.

In North Dakota, at-large GOP Rep. Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp were strong, personable candidates, though Heitkamp was a little better. Berg began with higher negatives that resulted from a bitter 2010 race against then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy, and the Republican had more of a “businessman” persona in this state where rural roots are important.

Heitkamp, who lost a race for governor against Republican John Hoeven in 2000, is down-to-earth and easy to like. After being diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of her 2000 race, she probably began as a sentimental choice for some state voters who admired her tenacity and courage. And it didn’t hurt that her campaign was better than Berg’s.

Ex-Rep. Heather Wilson was a strong GOP nominee in New Mexico, but so was Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich, and the state’s partisan bent was simply too much for Wilson to overcome. Former Hawaii Republican Gov. Linda Lingle had the same problem.

In Virginia, Republican George Allen was good enough to win most races, but Democrat Tim Kaine was an even better candidate, especially after Obama’s numbers improved. The president’s victory in the Old Dominion was enough to help Kaine carry the state.

In Maine, King, who wasn’t the Democratic nominee but was the party’s de facto candidate, had the best profile and best positioning in the three-way race, so it isn’t surprising he won the seat.

The only Democratic top-tier challengers and open seat candidates to lose were Arizona’s Richard Carmona and Nevada’s Rep. Shelley Berkley. Both were adequate candidates. Carmona, who positioned himself as a nonpolitician but sounded like a generic candidate, simply wasn’t as good a candidate as Rep. Jeff Flake, and Berkley didn’t have the breadth of appeal that appointed Sen. Dean Heller had (which is why she ran 7 points behind the president in the state).

Elsewhere, other factors were more important.

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