As the New York Times reported over the weekend, Karl Rove and the donors behind the American Crossroads super PAC are launching an effort to prevent any more Todd Akins and Richard Mourdocks from winning Republican nominations in key races. That news prompted immediate scorn from forces on the right that have been crucial to the success of anti-establishment candidates in GOP primaries in the past two election cycles.
“They are welcome to support the likes of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist and David Dewhurst,” Barney Keller, the spokesman for the Club for Growth, told Politico on Sunday. “We will continue to proudly support the likes of Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.”
This points to an open question about the new Rove effort, which is being called the Conservative Victory Project: What criteria will it use to determine who is and isn’t electable?
After all, as Keller notes, the right can point to high-profile instances in 2010 and 2012 in which its candidates defied the Rove crowd, won primaries anyway, went on to win general elections, and then became leading figures in the national Republican Party. There have also been instances in which the (supposedly) most electable option beat back the right in a primary and still lost the general election. Think of Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin last fall.
There were GOP primaries in 2010 and 2012 in which the electability question was easy to answer. Mike Castle would probably have won Delaware’s open Senate seat in ’10, for instance, while Christine O’Donnell never had a prayer. Mourdock at least had a fighting chance in Indiana last year, but the race would never have been on the radar if the GOP had simply stuck with incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar. And Akin’s flaws were so obvious that Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that he would emerge as her opponent. By wading into these primary contests with big bucks, a group like the Conservative Victory Project could well have prevented general election defeats for the party.
But it’s not always this clear-cut. Take the 2010 Kentucky GOP Senate primary between Rand Paul, who ran with the support of Jim DeMint and the Senate Conservatives Fund, and Trey Grayson, the establishment’s choice and a protégé of Mitch McConnell. Kentucky is a red state and ’10 was an unusually strong Republican year, meaning that either candidate was going to win in the fall. With Paul as the nominee, the margin was simply closer, but he still prevailed comfortably, despite the exact same kind of general election blundering that doomed Akin and Mourdock. Tea Party-type Republicans are thrilled that Paul now enjoys such a prominent voice in the national conversation, and his primary victory made a powerful statement to the rest of the party about the power of groups like DeMint’s.
Or take the Specter example that Keller cites. What would have happened if a group like the Conservative Victory Project existed back in 2009, when Specter was still planning to run for reelection as a Republican in ’10 and agonizing over the stimulus? Would it have backed him unconditionally, given his broad appeal in blue state Pennsylvania, and given him cover to side with the Obama administration on the stimulus without feeling the need to switch parties? The right’s preferred Specter alternative, Toomey, probably wasn’t as electable, but in the climate of ’10, he was electable enough.
The point is that it’s relatively easy to spot the candidates who are most likely to commit Akin/Mourdock-level gaffes and lose winnable races for the GOP. As the Times story notes, the GOP establishment is already worried about Rep. Steve King, who has likened illegal immigrants to dogs, snagging the Republican Senate nomination in Iowa next year. Joe Miller is also threatening to make a comeback bid in Alaska, and Rep. Paul Broun could be a problematic candidate for Republicans if he wins their Senate nomination in Georgia.
But candidates like King, Miller and Broun represent the same restive conservative movement that has promoted Paul, Toomey, Rubio and Cruz – successes that have given the right enormous sway within the GOP. Republicans don’t have the White House or the Senate, but groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund still enjoy outsize influence. If elevating Paul-type candidates and maintaining their clout means backing the occasional general election dud, that’s probably a price these groups are willing to pay. And given their demonstrated ability to rile up the conservative grass roots and deliver serious financial boosts to their preferred candidates, they probably have the means to fight Rove’s new effort
So while it’s possible the Conservative Victory Fund could save the GOP a few seats in 2014, there’s also the potential that its existence will only strengthen the right’s resolve to fight the party establishment – and to help the very candidates it’s designed to stop.