The Trickle-Down Effect of Tea-Party Primary Wins

Republicans in California and Colorado say that two far-right candidates could win their gubernatorial nominations this June — and damage their entire tickets in November.

US Congressman Tom Tancredo smiles as he addresses the crowd prior to the arrival of the Iranian opposition group People's Mujahedeen's leader in exile, Maryam Radjavi (unseen) during a rally organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran on June 26, 2010 in Taverny, outside Paris. Iranians call for a tougher policy in Iran. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
June 1, 2014, 7:08 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans have gone all-in on main­stream can­did­ates in this year’s battle­ground primar­ies to max­im­ize their chances of win­ning elec­tions. But two tea-party can­did­ates for gov­ernor could grind those ef­forts to a halt in Cali­for­nia and Col­or­ado, two West­ern states where the party has struggled in re­cent years.

Cali­for­nia state le­gis­lat­or Tim Don­nelly and former Rep. Tom Tan­credo of Col­or­ado are both cap­able of win­ning their party’s primar­ies in June to take on Demo­crat­ic Govs. Jerry Brown and John Hick­en­loop­er. Both Don­nelly and Tan­credo are well-known anti-im­mig­ra­tion dem­agogues prone to mak­ing in­cen­di­ary, off-the-cuff re­marks that have spared no of­fense, par­tic­u­larly to His­pan­ics and wo­men. Power­ful forces have lined up to de­feat them, in­clud­ing 2012 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney, who en­dorsed two of their op­pon­ents — former U.S. Treas­ury De­part­ment of­fi­cial Neel Kashkari in Cali­for­nia and former GOP Rep. Bob Beau­prez in Col­or­ado — in the past month.

The fate of these bona fide tea-party can­did­ates is about more than keep­ing score of es­tab­lish­ment wins and losses. Demo­crats are hop­ing, and some Re­pub­lic­ans are con­cerned, that hav­ing Don­nelly and Tan­credo atop their tick­ets would be a ma­jor drag on the en­tire Cali­for­nia and Col­or­ado GOP slates in Novem­ber — or worse, could cause ser­i­ous dam­age to the party’s long-term pro­spects.

Don­nelly is an an­ti­abor­tion, pro-gun former mem­ber of the Minute­man Pro­ject, an act­iv­ist group that patrols the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der to curb the flow of il­leg­al im­mig­rants, and is cur­rently on pro­ba­tion for try­ing to board an air­plane in Ontario with a loaded gun. Don­nelly was re­cently con­demned by mem­bers of his own party for claim­ing Kashkari, a non­prac­ti­cing Hindu, sup­por­ted Muslim Sharia law be­cause he par­ti­cip­ated in a Treas­ury sem­in­ar on Is­lam­ic fin­ance.

Tan­credo earned his repu­ta­tion as an im­mig­ra­tion hard-liner, vo­cal dur­ing his years in Con­gress about his be­lief that His­pan­ic and Is­lam­ic res­id­ents are a threat to the coun­try’s cul­tur­al iden­tity. He’s also been a staunch sup­port­er of Col­or­ado’s per­en­ni­al per­son­hood pro­pos­als, which would ban abor­tion even in cases of rape and in­cest and out­law cer­tain forms of birth con­trol.

Former Col­or­ado Re­pub­lic­an Party Chair­man Dick Wadhams has been an un­equi­voc­al alarm­ist about Tan­credo, who he thinks would win the primary if it were held today. “The danger he poses would go bey­ond this elec­tion,” Wadhams said. “It would take Col­or­ado off the table in 2016. It would really take Col­or­ado off the map as a purple state.”

A primary win for Tan­credo on June 24 wouldn’t mark his first go-round in the gubernat­ori­al theat­er. He ran on the Amer­ic­an Con­sti­tu­tion Party line in 2010 after Re­pub­lic­ans failed to field a cred­ible can­did­ate, and Tan­credo fin­ished second to Hick­en­loop­er, 14 per­cent­age points be­hind.

“Tan­credo was ba­sic­ally a sideshow in 2010,” Wadhams said. “This time he would be the main event be­cause he would ac­tu­ally be the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee, not a third-party nom­in­ee in a race that was already lost. He would define the Re­pub­lic­an Party as anti-His­pan­ic, an­ti­wo­man, and drive turnout among those voter groups.”

If Tan­credo wins, Wadhams said, “it will suck all the oxy­gen out of the elec­tion. Can­did­ates like Cory Gard­ner, Mike Coff­man, our can­did­ates for at­tor­ney gen­er­al and sec­ret­ary of state, which are open seats, and our can­did­ates for state Sen­ate in com­pet­it­ive races will be saddled with the con­tro­ver­sies and reck­less­ness of Tom Tan­credo and they will not be able to run their own cam­paigns.”

Farther down the bal­lot, Re­pub­lic­ans are one seat away from win­ning con­trol of the state Sen­ate, and in do­ing so, van­quish­ing Demo­crats of single-party con­trol of the state. The GOP picked up two Sen­ate seats in re­call elec­tions in 2013, and the cham­ber is a ma­jor tar­get for the Re­pub­lic­an Le­gis­lat­ive Cam­paign Com­mit­tee this year, which works to elect Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates at the state level. RL­CC spokes­wo­man Jill Bader said “Col­or­ado is ab­so­lutely a tar­get,” and said the op­por­tun­ity at hand is so vi­tal that the com­mit­tee chose Col­or­ado Springs as the site of their an­nu­al na­tion­al meet­ing this year.

A hand­ful of the state Sen­ate seats that are cur­rently in play are in Jef­fer­son and Ar­apahoe counties, areas with big His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tions in the Den­ver sub­urbs. The vot­ing pop­u­la­tion in Coff­man’s dis­trict to the east of Den­ver is also nearly one-fifth His­pan­ic.

In Cali­for­nia, mean­while, every year is a tough year lately. Even with com­pet­it­ive self-fund­ing can­did­ates in both the Sen­ate and gov­ernor’s races in 2010 Re­pub­lic­ans still lost both races, failed to pick up any U.S. House seats, and ceded ground to Demo­crats in the state Le­gis­lature. This year, the party is hop­ing to win back sev­er­al House seats lost in 2012, es­pe­cially those held by Demo­crat­ic Reps. Ami Be­ra, Raul Ruiz, and Scott Peters. They’re also hop­ing to score the ne­ces­sary three seats — two in the state As­sembly and one in the state Sen­ate — to break apart Demo­crats’ power­ful su­per­ma­jor­ity in the Le­gis­lature.

Be­set by rap­id demo­graph­ic change, the Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­an Party has been in trouble for reas­ons that have little to do with Don­nelly. But the former Minute­man could ex­acer­bate things. Re­pub­lic­an strategist Rob Stutz­man says a Don­nelly primary win is “a very real pos­sib­il­ity” on June 3, and if it ma­ter­i­al­izes, “Don­nelly be­ing the gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate will com­plic­ate the path for Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates in com­pet­it­ive races.”

At the le­gis­lat­ive level, Don­nelly could be an un­wel­come dis­trac­tion from the golden op­por­tun­ity the GOP has to tie their op­pon­ents to three Demo­crat­ic state sen­at­ors who have faced cor­rup­tion in­dict­ments. The fin­an­cial stakes in the state Sen­ate are high­er than in some con­gres­sion­al races: Stutz­man says he ex­pects at least $7 mil­lion or $8 mil­lion to be spent on one par­tic­u­larly com­pet­it­ive open race in Or­ange County.

Not every Demo­crat is sold on Don­nelly’s bo­gey­man po­ten­tial in down-bal­lot races, though. Demo­crat­ic strategist Bill Car­rick, who man­aged Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein’s reelec­tion bid in 2012, said, “I don’t know that he’s well known enough to cause that kind of dy­nam­ic.”

In­deed, a Field poll from April showed a full 50 per­cent of voters didn’t know enough about Don­nelly to form an opin­ion, and there’s a good chance he won’t have enough money to change that. His most re­cent cam­paign fin­ance re­port showed he had just $70,000 in the bank, while Brown re­por­ted over $20 mil­lion.

When all is said and done, Car­rick said, “There’s a good strong chance that he will just be ig­nored. That’s what happened to [2012 U.S. Sen­ate can­did­ate Eliza­beth] Emken. No one thought she was com­pet­it­ive and in a world of scarce me­dia re­sources, she couldn’t get any at­ten­tion. She had no money.”

Don­nelly’s track re­cord is some­what dark­er than Emken’s, though. And on the bot­tom line, it’s nev­er good for a party to have a “sideshow,” as Wadhams put it in Col­or­ado, lead­ing a tick­et. “Demo­crats are con­cerned that if Jerry Brown is at 70 per­cent at the polls, does it hurt their turnout,” said Stutz­man, the Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­an strategist. “But if you’re a Re­pub­lic­an you can’t ar­gue that you’re bet­ter off with a weak can­did­ate at the top of the tick­et.”

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