If Republicans are ultimately denied their dream of stripping Sen. Harry Reid of his Majority Leader title this year, they may be confronted with the possibility that they fielded the wrong candidates — both in Senate races and in the presidential contest.
Mitt Romney’s decline nationally and in various swing states in September dovetailed with the dip seen by Republican candidates in key Senate races. Consider the recent developments in various states.
Always a lock to carry Massachusetts, President Barack Obama’s support has swelled in the Bay State over the last month, with some polls showing him eclipsing the 60 percent threshold. As Obama has expanded his advantage there over Romney, Democratic Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren has grabbed the lead from Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) during the same period.
In Wisconsin, Republican Senate nominee Tommy Thompson’s meteoric fall in the polls has coincided with the state shifting from toss-up territory to the growing list of erstwhile battlegrounds that now favor Obama (punctuated by a mid-September poll that showed Romney trailing by 14 in the Badger State). Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin has surged past the former Wisconsin governor to assert herself as the clear favorite in a race that represented a prime opportunity for the GOP to slice into the Democratic majority in the Senate.
The hyper-competitive Virginia Senate race between Tim Kaine and George Allen remains tight. However, Kaine has started to see some lift. A Washington Post poll conducted Sept. 12-16 showed him up by 8 among likely Virgina voters. That same poll also gave the president an 8-point lead over Romney.
A pair of Democratic incumbents, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, have likewise made gains in the last month over Republican challengers Rep. Connie Mack and Josh Mandel, just as Obama has also ticked up in the two crucial battlegrounds.
The table below, based on the PollTracker Average for each contest, illustrates how the presidential and Senate races in those states veered away from Romney and the Republicans from the period before the national conventions to the end of September.
The onus may not be entirely on Romney. Matt Canter, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told TPM that the GOP, particularly in Florida and Ohio, put forth flawed nominees.
“Republicans recruited some bad candidates,” Canter said. “Josh Mandel and Connie Mack, these are bad candidates. If you look at the polls there, the Democrats have led in the high single digits for a long time. So [Mandel and Mack] don’t just need Romney to win those states, they need him to win big.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment.
Still, it would be difficult to dismiss the simultaneous downward slide for both Romney and these Republicans as mere coincidence. In Nevada, where another high-profile Senate race is playing out, Republican Sen. Dean Heller can’t seem to shake Democratic challenger Shelley Berkley, despite her low personal popularity. Canter said Heller has been conflated with Romney, who took a number of hardline positions on immigration during the Republican primaries, as well as the fringe elements of the party. That hurts the incumbent with a crucial part of the state’s electorate.
“The key part is that Dean Heller cannot distinguish himself from Mitt Romney or Sharron Angle,” Canter said. “That’s sinking him with Latino voters in the state.”
Tom Jensen, director of Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP), told TPM that statewide races are now inseparable from national politics, and that is especially problematic for candidates such as Heller and Brown.
“What’s amazing is that the horse race numbers have gotten worse for Scott Brown and Dean Heller, but their individual numbers have remained the same,” Jensen said. “That shows how these races have become increasingly nationalized. Scott Brown is a better candidate than Elizabeth Warren. He’s one of the most popular candidates in the country, but I think he’s going to lose anyway. That race has gotten too nationalized for his appeal to matter.”
In a Senate race like the one in Virginia, Jensen said that the president will only help Democrats retain that seat, which is being vacated by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA). Kaine, Jensen said, has room to grow with Virginia’s burgeoning minority population.
“If I’m Tim Kaine, I want to be seen with Barack Obama,” Jensen said. “Kaine’s support is only lagging among African-American voters. He just isn’t running on the same level as Obama with minority voters.”
Bruce Haynes, a former media consultant for the Republican National Committee and a founding partner of the bipartisan polling firm Purple Strategies, acknowledged that Obama and other Democrats had a fruitful September, saying that even strong GOP candidates “might be confronting some of those headwinds in states where the president has a bit of a lead.” But Haynes urged caution, reminding that the recent changes in the polls underscore the capricious nature of this year’s campaign.
“In some of these states you’re seeing some Democrats who are coming home,” Haynes told TPM. “There’s no question that Democrats had themselves a good convention, and their bounce has lasted a bit longer than a lot of people expected. But I’m not one of these guys who’s shoveling dirt on Romney. All these leads have been fluid and there’s still time.”
Haynes also disputed the notion that control of the Senate was a 50/50 proposition until Romney lost ground to Obama, arguing that two developments irrespective of the presidential race struck a blow to the Republicans’ chances of returning to the majority. The unexpected retirement of Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) earlier this year denied the party one of its safest seats, while the calamitous campaign of Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) has jeopardized one of the GOP’s ripest pick-up opportunities.
“After those two moments, things became much tougher for the party,” Haynes said.
Jensen, however, said Romney has not only hurt Republicans in Senate races, but the party’s other down-ballot candidates as well.
“I think Romney has been a drag everywhere and I have to believe these trends are occurring in House races too,” Jensen said. “If Republicans had an average nominee, Barack Obama would lose and he’d probably bring a lot of people with him. For most of the year, I thought Romney was a below-average nominee, but now I think he’s one of the worst nominees ever.”
Chart by TPM’s Christopher O’Driscoll
Tom Kludt is a newswriter for TPM. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, he lives and works in New York City. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at Tom (at) talkingpointsmemo.com.