The GOP's Worst Week

Snowe's retirement, Obama's comeback, and Romney's close call in Michigan bode poorly for Republicans.

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In a political season that has devolved into a miserable slog for the Grand Old Party, this week might actually have been its worst yet.

Start with the U.S. Senate. In a stunning reversal, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of the few Republicans left in New England and a mortal lock for re-election next year, said Tuesday that she is retiring. She had apparently decided that a terminally gridlocked Senate and a party dominated by Tea Party fanatics wasn't where she wanted to spend another six years. "I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term," she noted in her announcement.

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Snowe's decision is a blow to GOP hopes for a Senate takeover, which would require a net three-seat gain, or four seats if President Obama is re-elected. Her open seat instantly becomes a tossup with a good likelihood of being Democrat-favored once the candidates are settled. She becomes the exclamation point on a miserable season for a Senate GOP that had started the cycle seemingly poised for a return to the majority. Democrats had already scored recruiting coups in Massachusetts (progressive heroine Elizabeth Warren against Sen. Scott Brown); Virginia (popular former Gov. Tim Kaine against ex-Sen. George "Macaca" Allen); and North Dakota (considered a slam-dunk Republican pickup until former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp signed on for Democrats). The GOP has been weaker than expected against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, where the leading GOPer, Rep. Connie Mack IV, has been tarred as the "Charlie Sheen of Florida politics" for past alleged bad-boy behavior. And this week former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey changed his mind and will run for his old seat. While Kerrey, who has lived in New York City since 2001, is a long shot to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, his presence forces Republicans to at least pay attention to the race.

Of course, the Democrats' brightened Senate outlook is directly related to Obama's newfound political life. The bipartisan Battleground Poll released this week underscored just how far Obama has come back, with 53 percent approving of the job he's doing, up 9 percentage points since as recently as November. The survey only punctuated a trend that has been clear for several weeks as Obama's approval rating has climbed steadily back into the positive range, powered by an improving economy. This week brought more news on that front: Growth in gross domestic product in the fourth quarter of 2011 was revised upward, from 2.8 to 3 percent, and the Dow finished over 13,000 for the first time since the Great Recession started.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The Michigan GOP primary also afforded Obama the opportunity to take a victory lap on the successful bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler. "I placed my bet on the American worker," the president told an ebullient crowd of autoworkers on Tuesday. "And now, three years later … that bet is paying off. Not just paying off for you, it's paying off for America."

His (still, really) likely rival, on the other hand, pushed an incoherent message that the bailout was a disaster and was successful only because it was his plan all along—never mind that 2008 "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" op-ed in the New York Times. And this was when Mitt Romney wasn't talking about his wife's Cadillacs or randomly popping up in Florida to mention that his pals own NASCAR teams.

The Michigan race turned into such a wreck for the GOP that former George W. Bush pollster Matthew Dowd wrote in National Journal that the state is "likely to be off the fall map of battleground states."

That Romney eked out a victory was a mixed blessing for a party that is terrified of a Rick Santorum nomination. To understand that fear, consider not only Santorum's stands against college, contraception, and John F. Kennedy, but also a forecast by the respected Rothenberg Political Report putting 332 electoral votes in the "Safe Obama" category if Santorum is the GOP standard-bearer.