RIP: ‘Republicans cannot defeat Democratic incumbent Senators.’

“Republicans cannot defeat Democratic incumbent Senators.” This was, in some ways, the single most obnoxious meme that Democrats promulgated in the last two, three election cycles, largely because it was based on an unusually facetious argument. Basically, the idea was that Democrats had a skill set and resources that made their incumbent Senators bulletproof; there was no way that a Republican should challenge one, so the best hope the GOP had was to wait until a Democrat died or retired or something. This was, of course, flaming nonsense on stilts, for three reasons:

  1. The 2010 election. Blanche Lincoln and Russ Feingold both got defeated, the latter in a state that had looked (up to that point, at least) like it was getting steadily bluer and bluer. If Byron Dorgan and Evan Bayh hadn’t retired, they would have had the same problem.
  2. Retirements in general, in fact. What the meme carefully doesn’t take into account are places like Nebraska, where Ben Nelson retired rather than lose; or Senators like Chris Dodd, who was more or less forced to retire in 2010 in order to save his Connecticut seat. And we might have gotten Virginia and Wisconsin in 2012 if Jim Webb and Herb Kohl had decided to fight it out, at that.
  3. It was always just Senators, for some reason. The trick apparently didn’t work for incumbent Democratic governors, or statewide elected officials. And nobody ever stopped for a moment and asked themselves “Why is that?”

And to that list, thanks to Election Night 2014 we can now add a fourth: there was no real-world evidence backing up the statement. This is a surprisingly common problem in the political world: people in This Thing Of Ours go around all the time repeating rules-of-thumb and folk superstition as if they were axioms derived from the rigorous application of theoretical physics. In this particular case, everyone was so busy saying that Democratic operatives somehow mystically knew how to win incumbency elections under the worst possible conditions that they never thought to grab a representative sample of actual Democratic operatives and test their skills.

Because it was always somebody else that knew the trick, of course. Top men*. And that really did hurt Democrats this cycle, because it probably convinced a lot of Democrats that Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC)Heritage ActionScorecardSen. Kay Hagan<img …read more    

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