As Republicans squabble over whether to bet on either ideologically pure or more-electable Senate candidates, it’s worth remembering how big a role style and temperament plays in whether candidates win elections. The losing GOP candidates whose names repeatedly come up as conservative flops had one thing in common: a confrontational, almost incendiary, style that turned off voters — Democrats, independents, and Republicans alike.
The biggest lesson the GOP is trying to relearn is not that conservative candidates cannot win statewide elections, but that conservative candidates whose style is marked by incendiary language struggle to win.
Consider the evidence: In 2012, then-Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri claimed that women's bodies could shut down pregnancy after rape. In Indiana, Richard Mourdock was similarly snagged by a question about reproductive rights and said he enjoyed politics because he liked to "inflict his opinion" on the public. In 2010, Sharron Angle put her controversial antiabortion views front and center. A reporter was handcuffed and detained after questioning Alaska Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller. Most notably, in Delaware, Christine O'Donnell's views on masturbation and witchcraft grabbed headlines.
Now consider the GOP's big winners: Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio in Florida, and Ted Cruz in Texas are all widely praised as solid conservatives who, in the case of Toomey and Rubio, won in swing states by running disciplined campaigns. Other conservatives with disciplined campaign approaches won in 2010, including Kelly Ayotte and Dan Coats, a sign that it's the candidate's style as much as ideology that determines success.
The internal GOP debate flared up after the recent launch of the the Karl Rove-backed Conservative Victory Project, which will back Republican primary candidates viewed as more "electable." Fiscally conservative groups such as the Club for Growth argue that principled conservatives are the way to win elections and "electability" is just a byword for "moderate." The new super PAC, they argue, all but circumvents the grassroots. The Club for Growth backed Rubio and Toomey before it was trendy, the group's Chris Chocola argued Tuesday on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown.
"We vet candidates all day every day," Chocola said. "That's what we do. We try to find people that have core beliefs that will take those beliefs to Washington."
Surprisingly, the head of American Crossroads’ efforts agreed with Chocola, arguing the mission had nothing to do with ideology.
"The issue of candidate quality is not an ideological one,” the Conservative Victory Project's Stephen Law said on Daily Rundown. "Candidate vetting — what people say, what they have done, what they might do in the future — has got to be an ingredient in deciding who you're gonna support down the road."
But conflict arises between the two groups when those two principles appear to be in conflict. Take the 2014 Iowa Senate primary, which could feature conservative Rep. Steve King, who would bring a history of controversial statements to the race. The establishment favorite is Rep. Tom Latham, who could attract opposition from the Club for Growth.
“Tom Latham has a less-than-stellar score with us on economic issues, and Steve King ran a very disciplined race in a very competitive race in 2012 against Christie Vilsack who had 100 percent name ID and was very well-funded,” Chocola said. "We think principles matter. We think core beliefs matter."