SAN FRANCISCO AND WASHINGTON — Republicans got a wake-up call this week.
For months, the GOP has been buoyed by the notion that 2010 will be a big year, delivering control of the House and perhaps even the Senate in November. But Tuesday's election -- arguably the best campaign day for Democrats since President Obama's victory in 2008 -- suggests the climb back to a majority may be steeper than Republicans thought.
Democrats nominated probably their strongest Senate contender in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak eliminated party-switcher Arlen Specter. In Kentucky's Senate contest, Democrats drew their preferred opponent in state "tea party" founder Rand Paul (though he could be underestimated in the fall as he was this spring.)
Probably the most significant outcome, however, was the Democratic victory in a special House race in rural Pennsylvania. The district -- anti-abortion, gun-loving, wary of Washington -- is precisely the sort of place the GOP needs to prevail to win back the House.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 22, 2010 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Midterm elections: An article in Thursday's Section A about the Republican Party's prospects in the fall midterm elections said voter Jeremy Chesser was from Bartstown, Ky. The city is Bardstown, Ky.
But Democrat Mark Critz, running on a platform of job creation, easily defeated GOP businessman Tim Burns, who sought to turn the contest into a referendum on Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
Republicans should have won the race easily. Obama lost the district in 2008 and his popularity has plummeted since. Burns said he hadn't even prepared a concession speech. Instead, the defeat extended the GOP's losing streak in special House contests to four this election cycle and 11 since 2008 -- making it that much more difficult to capture the 40 seats the party needs to win the House.
"This should not have been rocket science," said nonpartisan election handicapper Charles Cook. "How can you win 40 if you can't even focus on one and get it done?"
While too much can be made of a single race -- especially in an off year, when local politics and personalities tend to matter more -- the defeat in Pennsylvania coal country was almost on a par with Democrats' loss of Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts.
"The Republicans test-drove their strategy for November and crashed," said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "They believe in using the boogeyman of President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to rally their voters, and that failed."
Republican leaders were stoic Wednesday, if humbled. "Last night is evidence of the fact that we have a lot of work to do and we can't get ahead of ourselves," Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, told reporters.
Privately, GOP insiders engaged in a now-familiar ritual, lamenting their financial disadvantage -- the Democrats have $70 million in cash on hand to Republicans' $48 million -- and carping at the operations of the Republican National Committee and its congressional campaign under the erratic leadership of Chairman Michael Steele. His free-spending ways have caused nearly as much consternation as his verbal gaffes.
The party will likely break its House losing streak Saturday, when the GOP is expected to prevail in a Hawaii special election -- because two Democrats will split the vote against a lone Republican. (The seat will likely revert to Democrats in November, when just one party candidate faces the Republican.) Inevitably, the GOP will trumpet the fact that they stole a seat in Obama's home state. But the significance pales next to the loss in Pennsylvania.
Kentucky presents a different test for Republicans and its tea party allies.
Paul trounced the GOP establishment's candidate, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, by delivering a message in perfect pitch with the party's angriest wing: those who believe Washington is the source of just about everything that plagues the country. The question now is how that message will play with a general election audience.
Paul promised to oppose all earmarks, the funds lawmakers seek for pet projects back home. The pledge drew big cheers among tea partyers; but others, like Jeremy Chesser, aren't so sure the sacrifice is a good idea in a state as needy as Kentucky.
"He swears off of the earmarks, but you don't hear that from the senators in Illinois, or Indiana or Tennessee," said Chesser, an independent-leaning Republican in rural Bartstown, Ky. "So where does that leave us?"
The GOP's difficulties should not be overstated.
History and most of the evidence -- high unemployment, dissatisfaction with the Democratic Congress, middling presidential poll numbers -- suggest that November will bring significant GOP gains after two miserable campaign cycles. A pickup of at least 20 House seats and about half a dozen or so in the Senate seems practically a given. (The party needs 10 Senate seats to claim the majority.)
But Tuesday's results suggest that if the GOP is to take back either house, they will have to do more than sit back and wait.
"There's no mystical tide that's going to sweep Republicans in," said Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College and former GOP strategist. "The outcome, as always, is going to come down to candidate quality, issue positions and the kind of campaign that people run."