Here’s a big potential difference between this year and 1994: Sixteen years ago, the stronger conservatives and Republican reformers were elected to the House. The Senate was where Contract with America legislation went to die and the upper-chamber Republican freshman class was mostly pretty conventional compared to their House counterparts. This year, the stronger batch of conservative candidates might be the Republicans elected to the Senate.
On Tuesday, there’s a good chance the voters will elect Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck. Obviously, that equation changes somewhat if a few of those names come up short and Mark Kirk ends up being more representative of the Republican freshman class. But let’s face it: in recent elections where one party has dominated, the competitive Senate races have mostly broken one way.
In 2004, Republicans won every competitive Senate race except for Colorado. In 2006, the Democrats won every such Senate race except for Tennessee. Two years later, the Democrats won every genuinely competitive Senate election. While they briefly threatened in Georgia and Mississippi, that was more of a reflection of the expanding map — Saxby Chambliss ended up winning the runoff with 57 percent of the vote, Roger Wicker beat Ronnie Musgrove with 55 percent. The closest Senate race an incumbent Republican won was when Mitch McConnell was reelected with 53 percent of the vote.
So it stands to reason that Republicans will win most of the competitive Senate races on Tuesday, which means that all of the conservatives I just mentioned — all of them leading in at least some reliable polls — are more likely to win than not. This could prove significant even though Republicans have a better chance of winning the House than the Senate. The conservatives may arguably have more leverage in a large Republican minority than in a narrow Republican majority, where the moderates will need to be courted on every issue. Just electing Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint in 2004 had an impact. Electing five more could have an even bigger one.