It's not that the Republican politicians awaiting Paul Ryan's arrival on Oct. 20 looked scary. Incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey and U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy ... Senate candidate Tom Smith and House candidate Keith Rothfus ... these guys could easily have been a reunion of the high school chess club. In the nearly all-white airport hanger of Atlantic Aviation, before a nearly all-white crowd, they exuded a palpable dweebishness. The crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to Smith, while Rothfus gave a brief speech whose main selling point was that his last name, like that of Ryan and presidential nominee Mitt Romney, begins with "R."
You might have expected a bit more red meat, given the partisan crowd. But for all the Tea Party fervor of recent years, Republicans are spending a lot of energy trying to come across as harmless.
Romney, for one, now appears at debates breezily touting sensible government regulation, and a cautious approach to cutting taxes for the wealthy ... after months of portraying himself as a hardline conservative. Rothfus, meanwhile, is running ads that depict him not as a Tea Party hero, but as a "regular guy" who mows his lawn and fixes bikes. And Smith is airing an ad with his mother, assuring us that her son would never throw her off Medicare. Maybe in today's GOP, a politician who wouldn't throw his mother under the bus counts as a "moderate."
Still, if Smith and a handful of other Republicans win their Senate races, Democrats could lose control of their 53-47 majority. Conservatives already control the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives, which means that this time a year from now, the GOP could control all three branches of government.
What would that mean? A Senate whose environmental committee is chaired by James Inhofe, who regards climate change as a "hoax." Potentially an end to the filibuster — and with it all chance of reining in the GOP's most extreme judicial nominations. A Supreme Court majority willing to roll back the rights of workers, women and same-sex couples. Drastic changes to Social Security and Medicare — not for Tom Smith's mom, perhaps, but for many of us who've been covering her health care for years.
Such sweeping change may seem unlikely. New York Times polling guru Nate Silver has Obama as a 2-to-1 favorite in the presidential race, and has given the GOP only a 20 percent chance of taking the Senate. But that was last month, when Silver assumed, among other things, that Smith had no chance of beating the Democratic incumbent, Bob Casey. But an Oct. 16 Quinnipiac poll shows the Casey/Smith race a dead heat ... and indicates that in Pennsylvania, Obama's lead has shrunk from 12 points to just 4.
Yet in Western Pennsylvania, both sides are playing down the big picture. Rothfus' rival, incumbent Mark Critz, doesn't even identify himself as a Democrat on his yard signs; Murphy opponent Larry Maggi's first TV ad bizarrely accused Democrats of trying to torpedo natural-gas drilling. (The exception is Mike Doyle, who represents the city of Pittsburgh and faces only token opposition.)
That's why we've assembled this guide to critical races in this year's election. Keep it handy when you head for the polls — or when you turn on your television.
As for Ryan's speech, it was over in 15 minutes, a mélange of convenient omission and cognitive dissonance. "We are not going to duck tough issues," he pledged, sounding every bit like a guy whose running mate wasn't ducking questions about how to pay for his $5 trillion tax-cut proposal. Ryan touted Romney's ability to work with Democrats as a governor in Massachusetts — where, among other things, he passed a statewide health-care reform. As for Obama, who adopted Romney's reform for his own health-care proposal, only to be rebuked by Republicans? Ryan called him "the most partisan [president] I've ever known."
When it was over, the Republican faithful happily piled into their cars and drove away. A small counter-demonstration of Democrats had long since dispersed. All that was left was a memorial fountain featuring an American eagle with talons extended ... and a jet of water spraying it continuously in the face. It was as though someone was spritzing the symbol of our democracy with a seltzer bottle.
And as a Romney campaign bus rolled past it, trailing a crowd of acrid white smoke, I couldn't help but feel that on Nov. 6, the joke may be on us. This time for good.