A Dave Weigel piece on Thursday and a New York Times article over the weekend both try to navigate the same ground: the differences between an overall electoral landscape that favors Republicans, and some specific trends within that landscape that could help Democrats.
Weigel argues that "crazy" GOP candidates such as Sharron Angle and Rand Paul shouldn't be written off, comparing them to some Democrats who beat DCCC choices in 2006 primaries and went on to win anyway. He also makes the good point that some of people they beat in primaries that were expected to do well in November may have lost because they turned out to be lousy candidates. I think one has to be careful with these sorts of explanations. It's easy to say that Sue "chickens for checkups" Lowden ran a lousy campaign because we know about one high-profile gaffe. Still, we don't really know that Lowden was a bad candidate overall, and one should always be suspicious of post-election narratives that conveniently remember every campaign mistake of the losers. That's not to say Lowden would have been a very strong candidate; the larger story of the Nevada Senate race is that no truly first-rate candidate filed to take on Harry Reid. Beyond that, it's also worth remembering that something that makes a candidate genuinely weak in a GOP primary -- such as insufficient fidelity to Tea Party issues -- can be an advantage, not a disadvantage, in November. So while Weigel is certainly correct that some of the "crazy" candidates will win, and that some of the non-crazy candidates may have lost because of real weaknesses, overall I think it's clear that Republicans are not nominating the best possible candidates -- and that it will, on the margins, cost them in the fall.
Jeff Zeleny's NYT article details the differences between 1994, when many Democrats failed to take GOP challenges seriously, and better preparation by the Democrats this time around. It's a good article, because Zeleny mostly avoids the trap of overstating the importance of what he's describing. And, the truth is, it's unlikely that the difference he's describing is likely to affect election results very much. That doesn't mean it's not a good thing to report. For one thing, I think it's just inherently interesting to know what Members of Congress are thinking about and doing, and it's possible that Democratic vigilance may have effects other than in electoral politics (for example: it may be that Democrats are more eager to get back home than usual, which puts more pressure on the Senate and House floor schedules). And, on the margins, it's certainly possible that some Democrats will be saved from electoral extinction because they campaigned earlier and harder. So it's worth knowing.
The trick, and as I said I think Zeleny largely gets this right, is to add to what we know about elections without making overly dramatic claims about marginal pieces of information. I think that's a tough one for reporters, who after all need to sell editors and ultimately readers on the importance of their stories, so I'm always glad to see someone get it mostly right.