One of the first opportunities for Republicans to demonstrate that they’re not the “stupid party,” in the words of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, will be the way its leaders handle some sticky Senate primaries already emerging for 2014. In many battleground states, stepping forward are a handful of not-ready-for-prime-time, gaffe-prone candidates who are well-positioned to win primaries but at risk of getting thumped in a general election.
If this sounds like a broken record, it is. Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck cost the party two Senate seats in 2010. Last year, it was Todd Akin's and Richard Mourdock’s chance to damage the GOP on the national stage. The only difference between this upcoming midterm and the past two elections is that it’s now so painfully obvious what’s transpiring, yet party leaders are still trying to figure out how to prevent a crisis before it’s too late.
Iowa Rep. Steve King, an anti-illegal immigration hard-liner, is already giving serious consideration to the Senate race for the seat being vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin. Joe Miller, who lost in 2010 to a write-in candidate, is reportedly talking to the National Republican Senatorial Committee about a repeat run in Alaska. A Georgia House member who accused President Obama of following the Soviet constitution is probably running to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, and another who defended Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment is considering a campaign. Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann is waiting in the wings in Minnesota, as a possible contender against Sen. Al Franken.
All of these races are very winnable for Republicans, at least with the right candidates. But the danger is that, in these key contests, serious candidates may not even step up to the plate, out of fear they’ll be labeled too moderate, too establishment against a more outspoken challenger in the primary. It’s a double whammy for the NRSC, which faces enough challenges recruiting strong candidates and then figuring out how to aid them through an often-contentious primary process.
Talk to Republican strategists, and they’re in a no-win situation. It’s the Goldilocks dilemma: In 2010, they got behind favored candidates, and it backfired in states such as Delaware and Colorado, where outside involvement wasn’t welcome. They then stayed out of competitive primaries in 2012, and saw unelectable candidates emerge in Missouri and Indiana.
Even Republican voters are divided on how to approach the issue. Former NRCC Deputy Political Director Brock McCleary commissioned an (automated) poll last week asking whether GOP voters thought party leaders should play favorites because voters often pick candidates too extreme to win, or whether leaders should stay out even if it means ultimately losing to Democrats. The responses divided evenly: 34 percent wanted party involvement, 34 percent wanted them to stay out. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
“The best thing the NRSC can [do] is recruit the best possible candidate they can get their hands on and build a very strong political team around that candidate,” said one senior Republican strategist. “Most importantly, none of it can be done in public. It has to be a strictly behind-the-scenes effort so as not to allow the candidate to be perceived as the Washington-picked person.”
To that end, one of the most important players in the effort is newly minted NRSC Vice-Chairman Ted Cruz, who was tapped to be a bridge between the establishment and the grassroots. At the time of his appointment, his selection was seen as a way to mollify tea-party activists and demonstrate outreach to Hispanics. But as David Drucker reports in Wednesday’s Roll Call, Cruz sounds unlikely to dissuade too-conservative candidates from running, even behind the scenes. For the underdog who defeated the establishment-backed favorite in his Texas Senate primary last year to do that would go against his instincts.
Still, conservative leaders would be wise to embrace pragmatism on the political side, just as they’re moderating their legislative strategy on immigration and the debt ceiling. The Republican Party is quickly discovering in Obama’s second term that it’s awfully tough to propose alternative policy proposals when your party is only in control of the lower chamber. With five additional GOP senators – the precise number of seats lost in the last two elections because of disastrous candidates – conservatives would be positioned to pressure Obama, instead of the other way around.
The tea party has done a lot of good for the GOP, bringing a much-needed grassroots energy and encouraging outsiders and fresh faces into the electoral process.It has diversified the party, too, as a result. But if conservatives ever hope to influence the governing agenda, they’ll need to take a pragmatic approach to their politics.