Can the GOP Take Back the U.S. Senate?

In a word: yes. 

Will Republicans finally capture the prize that eluded them in both 2010 and 2012—a majority in the U.S. Senate? The smart money says yes.

So far, Republicans have nominated all the strongest (or at least the safest) candidates for each seat where there has been a competitive primary. Certainly, the party professionals have gotten their choice more often than anti-incumbent Tea Party activists. A couple tests remain, but it looks like the GOP Senate field will be “fringe-free” this time around.

The seats in play certainly favor the Republicans. In 2008, when we were at peak Obama, the Democrats gained ground in reddish territory. Now they must defend it in a much less favorable political climate. Turnout among key Democratic voting blocs appears likely to recede below presidential election-year levels.

Having said all that, the smart money has bet on the Stupid Party before and been wrong. (The Stupid moniker is an affectionate nickname for the GOP that legend says was coined by a conservative Hill staffer.)  It’s certainly possible Harry Reid will still be the Senate majority leader come 2015.

If he is, Reid will have white, conservative Southern Democrats—or at least conservative-ish and Southern-ish—to thank. The Dixiecrat was supposed to die years ago. Barry Goldwater was supposed to have pried them loose back in 1964, then George Wallace took the more populist (or racist) among them in 1968.

These voters were part of Richard Nixon’s 49-state landslide in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s in 1984. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton temporarily halted the migration of Southern whites away from their ancestral Democratic Party when they were first elected, but their liberal presidencies seemed to accelerate the trend. Republicans made many of their 1994 gains by knocking off Southern Democratic lawmakers with conservative constituents.

Yet here we are in 2014 worrying about whether Democrats will actually pick up Senate seats in Kentucky and Georgia during a Republican-friendly election year. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is a top Democratic target and Alison Lundergan Grimes was their preferred candidate.

In Georgia, the Democratic nominee is Michelle Nunn, daughter of four-term conservative Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn. Twenty years ago, her father—then on the Senate Armed Services Committee— was Bill Clinton’s main foe on gays in the military. He voted against the Clinton tax increase. Today, the younger Nunn just isn’t all that sure she would have voted for Obamacare had she been in the Senate at the time.

The last bona fide liberal Republican left the Senate when Lincoln Chafee’s last term expired in early 2007. (He had lost to a Democrat the previous November.) But people claiming to be moderate to conservative Democrats, though rare, can still be found.

Part of this is that such Democrats have always been thicker on the ground. With a few exceptions, liberal Republicans predominated in majority-Democratic areas. Conservative Democrats hail from regions where theirs was the dominant party. A politically ambitious blue blood in Massachusetts might join the GOP, but he’ll take few rank-and-file voters with him. Not so Southern Democrats.

Democrats still retain a voter registration advantage in places like Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia. Only the first of these three examples has a particularly large black vote. There are still a fair number of white Democrats in these states. It has taken Republicans decades longer to win state legislative majorities in places like Oklahoma, Georgia and even North Carolina than it did for them to start electing senators and giving GOP presidential nominees their electoral votes.

One big thing that has changed, however: few Democrats elected as Blue Dogs today are that conservative by historical standards. The boll weevils helped pass the Reagan tax cuts. Their 1990s successors came within Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote of killing Clinton’s tax hikes. While as many middle-of-the-road Democrats voted against Obamacare as Nancy Pelosi could afford, not a single dissenter could be found in the Senate—not Mark Warner, not Jim Webb, not Ben Nelson.

The few Democrats who do try to maintain reasonably conservative voting records still may find themselves tossed out of office in favor of Republicans. Think Gene Taylor, the longtime Mississippi congressman who was pro-life, pro-gun and anti-Obamacare. All that mattered in his final election was that he wouldn’t vote for John Boehner for speaker.

So Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor might tell the voters of Louisiana and Arkansas, respectively, that they are different from other Democrats in Washington. But their voting records will more closely resemble Hillary Clinton’s than Zell Miller’s.

Whether their accents and local anecdotes are more convincing than their American Conservative Union ratings will go a long way to deciding which party controls the Senate.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore/CC by-sa 2.0