There’s no denying that Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were embarrassments for the Republican Party in 2012, and that their nominations cost the GOP otherwise winnable Senate seats and complicated its efforts to take back the chamber. Similarly, there’s no doubt that Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle and Ken Buck were embarrassments for the GOP in 2010 and lost races that should have been gimmes for the party.
But a fight is breaking out on the right over the precise significance of these defeats, and what can be done to avoid a repeat in 2014.
In the wake of this month’s election, the outgoing chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, suggested the committee might junk its hands-off approach to Republican primaries going forward.
“What is the goal here?” he asked. “I think the goal is to elect principled conservatives in November, not just nominate somebody in the primary that has very little chance of getting elected in November. That doesn’t advance the conservative agenda, because you have to get elected before you can govern.”
Karl Rove also suggested that his pro-GOP super PAC, American Crossroads, might also turn its attention to GOP primaries in ’14 in an effort to steer voters away from Akin-like candidates.
This talk has prompted Chris Chocola, the head of the Club for Growth, a powerful force within the conservative movement, to warn against efforts by the party establishment to secure nominations for supposedly “electable” candidates.
In an Op-Ed in the Kansas City Star today, Chocola notes that the GOP’s problems in the past two cycles go beyond fringe candidates like Akin and O’Donnell – that establishment-approved nominees such as Tommy Thompson, Rick Berg, Denny Rehberg and George Allen also lost Senate races that were supposed to be winnable. What’s more, Chocola notes, it’s not as if every insurgent conservative who grabs a GOP nomination goes on to lose in the fall – as Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz can attest.
“[T]he Republican establishment has a horrendous track record of accurately identifying which candidates are truly unelectable and which are not,” he writes.
There’s something to be said for Chocola’s argument, although he doesn’t grapple with the very different nature of the 2012 and 2010 electorates. In ’10, a midterm election in which turnout among core Democratic groups was depressed, Republicans didn’t really pay a price for nominating candidates like Toomey who embraced Tea Party ideology; it was only candidates like O’Donnell who attracted attention with behavior that conformed to the stereotype of a kooky ideologue who had trouble. Virtually any Republican – whether a conservative purist or an establishment-approved pragmatist – could have won virtually any competitive Senate race in 2010. Had Thompson, Berg and Rehberg been on the ballot then, they’d be in the Senate now.
In the presidential year of 2012, by contrast, turnout among core Democratic groups swelled, creating a trickier environment for Republicans – one in which they had much less margin for error. In the climate of ’12, it’s hard to see Toomey replicating his narrow ’10 victory over Joe Sestak.
But yes, it’s true, establishment-type Republican candidates did take a beating this year. Republicans entered the ’12 cycle with what looked like an enviable map. The only real question seemed to be how big their majority would end up being, not whether they’d manage to secure one. But even if Mourdock and Akin had somehow won their races, the GOP would still be three seats short of 50 right now. So it’s not enough to say that the GOP will save itself in the future just by weeding out fringe candidates before they win primaries.
The real problem here is that there hasn’t been any room in the Tea Party era for electable Republican candidates to behave like electable candidates.
Take the example of Thompson, who served four terms as Wisconsin’s governor and who came to this year’s race with deep statewide popularity. He was the GOP establishment’s dream candidate, and while it was close, he was able to secure the nomination. But it came with a price. To keep the conservative masses from revolting against him, Thompson recalibrated his positions and rhetoric during the primary, trying to convince the right to see him as a fellow traveler. This included showing up at a Tea Party event and declaring his desire to “do away with” Medicare and Medicaid. When a video of that comment came out during the general election, it had a disastrous effect on Thompson’s campaign.
As long as the opinion-shaping forces within the Republican Party – Fox News, talk radio hosts and other media personalities, conservative leaders, Tea Party groups and so on – continue to demand absolute fealty to a rigidly ideological, far-right agenda, there’s only so much that the NRSC and groups like Rove’s will be able to do. Even for establishment-type candidates, the pressure will still be on to cater to the base. And the overall image of the party will continue to be a drag.
2014 may end up being a decent year for Republicans, since it will be a midterm and the other party is running the White House. They might be able to slip a few Toomey-ish candidates through again. But in the long term, the GOP will have a lot more general election success if the terms of acceptable debate within the party expand.