Flawed, gaffe-prone nominees may have cost them the chance to win three seats in the 2010 GOP wave. Now, an easy pickup in Missouri and a longtime GOP seat in Indiana are in question after high-profile stumbles on rape and abortion.
Democrats presently control the Senate with 53 votes, including two independents who usually vote with them. By any measure, Republicans should hold more seats if it had not been for losses two years ago in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada, where tea party-backed candidates stormed to wins in GOP primaries but fell short in the general election.
The biggest flameout of 2010 came in Delaware, where longtime Rep. Mike Castle had been considered a sure bet to take over a longtime Democratic seat despite the state's strong Democratic lean. But Castle was upended in the GOP primary by tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell, who in turn got crushed by 17 points in the general election by Chris Coons.
In Colorado, tea partyer Ken Buck defeated GOP establishment favorite Jane Norton in the primary, only to lose by 2 points to appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. And in Nevada, gaffe-prone tea party candidate Sharron Angle lost to Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, who entered the race with high unfavorable ratings and would probably have been an underdog to a more mainstream Republican candidate.
If Republicans had won those seats, the Senate would be evenly divided, with only the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Joe Biden maintaining control for Democrats.
"The tea party is so focused on nominating people who are ideologically in their camp that they don't consider the broader question of `Can this person win a general election?'" Castle said. "It happened at least three times in my cycle and in two of these elections this year, it's shaping up that way."
Republicans started 2012 with high hopes of taking over the Senate. They had just 10 seats at risk this year compared with 23 for Democrats - including the two independents who caucus with Democrats.
Then came the bizarre missteps.
Not one but two GOP candidates made widely panned remarks about rape, pregnancy and abortion.
The first GOP hit came in August, when Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., said in a televised interview that women who are victims of a "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant. He was justifying his position supporting abortion only when the life of the women is in danger.
"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," Akin said.
Akin had been leading in the polls against embattled Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, but In the ensuing meltdown over his remarks about rape and pregnancies, national Republicans pulled their support, essentially abandoning the seat. He trails in the polls.
Republicans claim there's a path to a Senate majority without Missouri. But that path became more difficult after Indiana GOP candidate Richard Mourdock - who toppled Hoosier icon Richard Lugar in a divisive primary this spring - stumbled during a debate last week and again introduced the issue of rape into the campaign.
"Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen," Mourdock said, referring to conception.
Mourdock already was considered a weak candidate - Lugar would probably be cruising to a seventh term had he made it to the general election - but Republicans were counting on the GOP lean of the state to carry him to victory. GOP polls had him slightly ahead before the rape remark and the race dead even afterward. Democrats released a poll claiming a lead for their candidate, Rep. Joe Donnelly.
Democrats know they're getting some breaks.
"What's happened is Republicans are nominating people who are so far out of the mainstream that even in deeply red states, they lose," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2005 to 2008. "If they had mainstream candidates (in 2010) as opposed to hard-right candidates, we would have had a much rougher time in Delaware, in Colorado, in Nevada. This year they're making the same mistake."
Republicans are sounding a lot more pessimistic about retaking the Senate after the stumbles of Akin and Mourdock.
"There have been some unforced errors, like a golf game," said GOP strategist John Feehery. "You're shooting right around par and all of a sudden you have a couple of triple bogies and you're not doing so well and you're out of the tournament."
What's different for Republicans this year is that it's not a tea party wave that's propelling their flawed nominees. Akin won the nomination in Missouri with critical support from evangelical Christians and anti-abortion activists after the other two candidates - who each had some tea party support - spent most of their effort beating up each other.
McCaskill, in fact, helped him along the way. Akin was the opponent she wanted, so she ran ads during the GOP primary criticizing him as being "too conservative" - and mentioning his support from prominent Republicans like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Mourdock enjoyed tea party support, but political analysts say his 20-point win in the Indiana Republican primary was fueled more by a perception that Lugar had lost touch with the state.
To be fair, GOP party leaders in Washington sometimes find themselves in a no-win situation. Attempts to clear the field for establishment candidates can ruffle feathers among local activists. And sometimes the judgment of the voters is better than that of Washington insiders. In Florida, for example, Marco Rubio two years ago quashed the establishment-blessed candidacy of former Gov. Charlie Crist - who's now endorsed President Barack Obama's re-election.
And despite their stumbles, Republicans have still have a strong field of candidates capable of taking Senate seats away from Democrats in Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Virginia, Connecticut and Ohio.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)