There are plenty of good reasons why Rep. Jean Schmidt’s Republican primary loss last week in Ohio’s 2nd District to Brad Wenstrup, a tea-partying podiatric surgeon and an Iraq war veteran, should not be extrapolated to other congressional districts. For one thing, Schmidt has chronically underperformed in GOP primaries. And, in a related factor, she was apparently behind the door when God handed out the charm and gregariousness that most elected officials possess. Schmidt is an acquired taste that many in her district and on Capitol Hill never managed to acquire.
She won general elections because people in that district almost always vote Republican, regardless of the contest. (John McCain won 59 percent of the vote there in 2008 against Barack Obama.) But in primaries, Schmidt consistently failed to connect with voters. Republican legislators in Columbus didn’t seem to have a problem with extending her district into Cincinnati, taking portions of the city that more-popular Republican Rep. Steve Chabot was happy to give up. These areas also knew Wenstrup from his previous run for mayor of Cincinnati.
But all this doesn’t mean that GOP incumbents should assume that Schmidt’s defeat was a once-in-a-cycle event—particularly incumbents who voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (popularly reviled by its acronym, TARP) or debt-limit increases, or, worse yet, both. Nor can House members whose districts have significantly changed because of redistricting breathe easier. Within an increasingly conservative, tea party-inspired Republican Party, seniority and loyal service to the party no longer seem to be an asset. Indeed, some GOP voters seem to think that if you have been in Congress more than 10 minutes, you have been in it too long. If you aren’t an immediate and obvious solution, then you must be part of the problem.
Consider for a moment what is happening within the Republican presidential contest. Historically, such GOP races have been hierarchical: The nomination goes to whomever’s turn it is. The old cliché was that Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line. This year, not so much. As my National Journal colleague Ronald Brownstein is fond of pointing out, seven different candidates have been front-runners at one point or another in the GOP race thus far, including some pretty exotic ones, such as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. Cain and Bachmann are not Republicans of the Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, or John McCain variety. We’re seeing an entirely new species of Republican voters. They consider ideological purity, passion, and anger to be positive attributes, and they think that pragmatism, moderation, and compromise are four-letter words.
Today’s Republican Party is definitely into experimentation. Watching weekly and sometimes twice-weekly debates among the presidential candidates, voters fall in and out of love faster than a seventh-grader. Their fickleness has made the contest less of a horse race and more of a pub crawl. The victor will ultimately stagger across the finish line.
Watching the spectacle, some Republican officeholders aren’t behaving normally. Many newer GOP members in Congress are reluctant, regardless of entreaties by their leadership, to begin acting more responsibly. This unwillingness may be a reflection of voters’ unhappiness back home. On cable television, radio talk shows, and conservative websites, the Republican base has become so self-absorbed that it is no longer in touch with the practical realities of governing. “Why haven’t you repealed ‘Obamacare’? ” they ask Republican members of Congress. The answer: “We don’t have the votes in the Senate to repeal it.” This, for some reason, is an unacceptable response. “Why haven’t you slashed spending and balanced the budget?” they ask. The answer: “It isn’t quite as simple as it sounds.” This reply just doesn’t cut it with the base.
The 2012 election features a lot of moving parts and competing dynamics. Some GOP strategists privately suspect that an anti-incumbent dynamic may be found more within Republican primaries than within Democratic ones, and perhaps more so than in general elections.
The Cook Political Report counts 22 House Republicans (not including member–versus-member races) with primaries worth watching. Some are more ideological or tea party-infused (Rep. Fred Upton’s race in Michigan); some are more generational or anti-entrenchment (Rep. Ralph Hall’s contest in Texas); and some are predominantly redistricting-related (Rep. Paul Gosar’s fight in Arizona). It’s races like Schmidt’s, where several of these factors are in play, that could turn into the most dangerous cocktails for incumbents.
In the postwar era, no election has seen more House incumbents lose primaries than general elections. But with 11 member-versus-member primaries on tap and a bevy of other interesting primaries brewing, particularly on the GOP side of the electorate, such an outcome isn’t out of the question. Jean Schmidt was the first, but she won’t be the last.
This article appears in the March 17, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.