Why Republicans Must Win the Senate in 2014

by Stuart Rothenberg October 15, 2014 · 11:09 AM EDT

If next month produces a big Republican year, with the GOP gaining control of the Senate and expanding its majority in the House, it will say little or nothing about 2016, when a presidential electorate and a very different Senate class combine to create the makings of a substantially good Democratic year.

But if the GOP fails to capture the Senate this year, 2016 could turn into an unmitigated disaster for the party. And for that reason, Republicans are under extremely heavy pressure to take back the Senate in November.

Four years ago, a Republican wave swept across much of the country (but not the West Coast), handing over control of the House and giving the GOP six more Senate seats. But the fact the party kicked away a handful of Senate seats — in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada — was disappointing and discouraging to GOP contributors who thought the party had a chance to win back the Senate.

Two years later, Republicans entered the cycle needing to net four Senate seats (three if President Barack Obama failed to win a second term) and filled with optimism about reclaiming the Senate. As spring approached, the map looked good for the GOP and dangerous for Democrats.

After all, Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson and North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad were retiring, and given each of their state’s fundamentals and the president’s weak standing, both appeared to be likely Republican takeovers. And in Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill was easy pickings, as long as the GOP didn’t nominate some knucklehead.

Even before Memorial Day arrived, Republicans seemed to have at least three other good takeover opportunities, in Montana against Sen. Jon Tester, and in open seats in Wisconsin and Virginia.

Yes, two GOP incumbents were at risk, in Massachusetts and Nevada, but Senate control looked promising for the party.

But when November rolled around, Democrats not only kept control of the Senate, they actually gained two more seats, making it that much more difficult for the GOP to take over the chamber this cycle. And many Republican donors who deluded themselves into believing Mitt Romney had a strong chance to win the White House and that GOP control of the Senate was within reach felt deflated and misled.

That defeat clearly impacted potential Republican donors in 2013 and this year.

This cycle, Democratic fundraising has surpassed the GOP’s. Through the end of September, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had raised $127 million to the NRSC’s $97 million, a difference of $30 million. By the end of August, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee out raised the National Republican Congressional Committee $146.4 million to $113.8 million, a margin of about $33 million.

All of this has happened during a cycle when the president’s job approval numbers have dipped, a Republican takeover of the Senate looks to be better than even money and the House is certain to stay in Republican hands for the president’s final two years.

That combination should encourage Republicans to write campaign checks, not sit on their wallets.

One can only imagine how another disappointing election would affect the Republican grass roots, GOP contributors and corporate America.

As one Republican strategist admitted to me recently, if his party fails to take back the Senate next month it will only lead observers to conclude Democratic campaign operatives are far superior to the GOP’s, and Republicans don’t have a chance of winning the White House in 2016.

It isn’t hard to imagine what that would do to the party leading up to the 2016 presidential contest.

Current conditions are so favorable for the GOP — including the president’s poor poll numbers, the states with Senate races, the lower turnout of Democratic groups in midterm elections, the quality of this cycle’s Republican Senate recruits and the daily dose of negative news that should help the party not holding the White House — that Republican Senate gains of fewer than six seats would be a punch to the party’s solar plexus.

If Republicans don’t net those six Senate seats this cycle, they are going to find themselves trying to explain to disgruntled, disappointed donors and voters why and how they will do better in a more difficult political environment.

And they are not likely to have a very good answer.