Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Ones That Got Away

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics October 7th, 2010

In every election cycle there are contests that one party “should” win but does not, usually because its partisans have chosen unwisely in the party primary. These are the ones that got away, to the consternation of party leaders who want to win above all else.

Before identifying these lost (or possibly lost) contests, let’s remember that nothing in the Constitution or laws requires a party’s voters to pick winners. As in the now-famous Delaware Republican primary for Senate, a majority appeared inclined to use the ballot to send a message to the party establishment, rather than select a candidate who could actually become senator. That is the voters’ right. By no means has this phenomenon been restricted to Republicans over the years. For example, Democrats sometimes chose the same route in the late 1960s and early 1970s to demonstrate their unhappiness with party leaders about the Vietnam War or the lack of openness in the party. Tea Party adherents in 2010 understand this impulse.

While Christine O’Donnell’s followers insist that everyone else will eat crow on November 2nd, you cannot find many election analysts who believe she will be in the winner’s circle, while moderate Congressman Michael Castle (R) would have defeated Democratic nominee Chris Coons handily to gain a Senate seat for the GOP. Every survey—public and private, Democratic, Republican, and nonpartisan—shows this.

Another classic example can be found in the Colorado gubernatorial contest. Unpopular Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who decided not to run for a second term, created the opportunity for a Republican victory. Former Congressman Scott McInnis was the favorite over Tea Party candidate Dan Maes in the GOP primary, until McInnis was caught up in a plagiarism scandal. Party leaders still favored McInnis, on the theory that he would withdraw and enable someone like former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton to run and win as the Republican nominee. But Maes won by a tiny margin, saddling the GOP with an unqualified candidate who also apparently misrepresented his work with Kansas law enforcement earlier in his career. Former Congressman Tom Tancredo (R), closely associated with the anti-immigration movement, decided to run as an Independent, further fracturing the Republican Party. Ever since, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic nominee, has essentially been the Governor-elect.

When party leaders talk privately, they bemoan plenty of other nominations, too. Here are some examples:

The what-ifs of politics are fascinating and consequential. Suppose Republicans miss taking the Senate by a vote or two? There are more than enough seats fumbled away here to have made the difference.