Photo of the 111th U.S. Senate, circa 2011. Courtesy of the U.S. Senate.

From the Center

In the closing days of a critically important midterm election in which control of the U.S. Congress is up for grabs, it would seem logical for both of the two major parties to do everything they can to win every possible seat.

While the House of Representatives appears increasingly likely to return to Republican control (and the fight now seems to be less about whether the GOP will regain its majority than the size of it), the battle for even a slight advantage in the 50-50 Senate could very easily tilt in either direction. Yet both Democratic and Republican national decision-makers have apparently decided that maintaining ideological uniformity in their respective caucuses is more important than winning a 51st seat.

The more obvious of the two opportunities is in the state of Ohio, where the contest for the seat of retiring Senator Rob Portman has been a virtual dead heat for most of the summer and fall. Author and commentator J.D. Vance rode Donald Trump’s endorsement to an easy victory in the Republican primary and given the GOP’s dominance in the once-purple swing state in recent years, appeared to be on a glide path to victory in November.

But Democratic Representative Tim Ryan, who has taken on quixotic campaigns for House Speaker and his party’s presidential nomination, has run a savvy campaign targeting the white working class voters that most Democrats younger than Joe Biden have largely ceded to Republicans during the Trump era. But a working class cultural conservative who regularly and loudly challenges his party’s progressive orthodoxies is an uncomfortable fit in national Democratic circles. So party leaders and donors, while pouring money into more uphill races in other parts of the country, have almost completely ignored Ryan’s candidacy.

Ohio was once the ultimate bellweather of American politics. But voters there have not supported a Democrat for president since Barack Obama ten years ago and have not elected a governor of that party since 2006. The only other Democrat who was won a top-of-the-ticket election in the 21st century is Senator Sherrod Brown, who has successfully wooed the same working class voters that Ryan has targeted. But that inconvenient precedent has been ignored by national Democrats. If Ryan does manage to pull off an upset next week, it will not be because of his party leaders but in spite of them.

Half a continent away in Colorado, Republicans are almost as fixated on ignoring a winnable Senate race of their own. Businessman Joe O’Dea, a fiscal conservative who supports abortion rights until the 22nd week of pregnancy and citizenship for Dreamers, opposes the repeal of Obamacare and has promised to “actively” campaign against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, is running an uphill race against incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet. O’Dea represents a classic Bush-Romney era traditional conservative, exactly the type of candidate who Republicans need to run in states like Colorado that have moved leftward in recent years.

National Republicans have belatedly sent some money to O’Dea, but it is a small fraction of what the Democratic party has to support Bennet. GOP leaders are still sending millions of dollars to Trump-backed candidates who are struggling in their own campaigns in other parts of the country. O’Dea faces a high-single digit deficit in recent polls and is clearly the underdog. But a low-turnout race against a low-voltage opponent in a region with some of the highest gasoline prices in the country represents a tantalizing opportunity for Republicans that appears to be slipping away from them.

Earlier this year, both parties’ most loyal voters nominated several candidates who brought obvious vulnerabilities to their general election campaigns. Prioritizing ideological fealty and knee-jerk partisanship over both electability and capability, these misguided populists chose hard-line leftists in Democratic primaries in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and committed Trump acolytes in Republican contests in Georgia and Arizona. Some of these vulnerable candidates may still pull out victories, but all are needlessly endangering seats that ought to be much safer for their parties.

Now it’s the party bosses turn, who are demonstrating their political tone deafness at a time when the stakes could not be higher. One side or the other will ultimately have to win the majority, but not without going to great lengths to avoid it.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

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