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Ponnuru: Will Republicans blow it again in 2014?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

In the past few weeks, the U.S. Senate races of 2014 have started to take shape.

Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, announced that she would take on Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi in a Republican primary. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky got a challenger, too, in businessman Matt Bevin; Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has decided to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.

What’s going to get the most attention, appropriately, is whether Republicans can retake the Senate. (More on that in a bit.) But there are other questions at stake in the election, and we’ll find out some answers as the races develop.

First, is President Barack Obama’s health care law going to be a hit or a flop? And will Republicans finally offer an alternative? Liberals think that as the law is put in place, people will appreciate their new benefits and support for it will rise. Conservatives think the start of the Affordable Care Act will be something between a disappointment and a disaster. If they’re right, the best bet for Democrats will be to change the subject to the Republicans’ lack of a plan.

If red-state Democrats such as Pryor and Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana start running away from the law – declaring their support for delaying some of its provisions, for example – we’ll know conservatives are winning the argument.

Second, is there going to be a resurgence of hawks in the Republican Party? Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has pulled the party in his direction; it’s more skeptical of foreign interventions and worried about civil liberties than it was during George W. Bush’s presidency. Cotton and Cheney are as youthful and energetic as Paul but on the other side of these debates – and they could start pulling the party back toward its Bush-era views.

Third, how do conservatives really feel about Republican leaders? A vocal contingent of them considers McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the rest worthless sellouts who are at odds with grass-roots sentiment. This group is backing Bevin. The Kentucky primary will give us a chance to see how many troops each side of this bitter intraparty feud really commands.

Fourth, have Republicans learned from the races they threw away in 2010 and 2012? They could have won several Senate seats had they nominated merely mediocre candidates rather than disastrous ones. Rep. Paul Broun, who is running for the Senate in Georgia, has a habit of mentioning Obama in close proximity to words like “Hitler” and “Soviet,” and he says that the Big Bang theory, embryology and evolution are “lies straight from the pit of hell.” If Republicans pick him, they will show that they’ve learned nothing – and that they no longer have any truly safe Senate seats.

Fifth, will there be a “wave” in which most of the competitive races break to one party or the other? Republicans are placing their hopes in the dubious theory that the public gets a “six-year itch” during a two-term presidency. It may also be that Republicans now have a strong advantage in midterm elections, in which a lot fewer Americans vote than presidential elections. If the Democrats can bring their edge in turning out voters from 2012 to the midterms, on the other hand, we could see a wave for them.

Sixth – the big one – will control of the Senate flip to the Republicans? The map favors them: Twenty-one Democratic seats will be up for election in 2014, compared with 14 Republican ones, and Republicans need a net gain of only six to get a majority. But the map favored Republicans in 2006 and 2012, too, and they managed to lose ground both times.

Republicans are well positioned to win seats from Democrats who are retiring in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana. But they aren’t running heavyweight candidates in Iowa or Michigan, where Democratic retirements have also created opportunities. It’s true that Republicans haven’t won a Senate seat in Michigan since 1994, but they did very well there in the last midterm elections – picking up the governorship and both houses of the state legislature.

Republicans also have no strong candidate yet in Minnesota, where Sen. Al Franken is nearing the end of a first term he barely won in the 2008 Democratic landslide. Alaska Democrat Mark Begich, another bare winner in 2008, doesn’t have a challenger worth sweating over yet, either.

Based on the way the races look now, then, a Republican takeover of the Senate is unlikely. Too much would have to go just right for it to happen. But that assessment is subject to revision – especially if Obamacare stays unpopular and the Republicans get their act together.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at the National Review.

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