Off to the Races

How Republicans Misplayed Their Primaries

Democrats didn't suffer in November because of their incumbents who were ousted in primaries, but Republicans did.

Republican congressional candidate Katie Arrington concedes the race to Democrat Joe Cunningham during her press conference at the Staybridge Suites in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. on Nov. 7.
AP Photo/Mic Smith
Dec. 13, 2018, 8 p.m.

Quick, name the four House incumbents who lost their reelection primaries earlier this year, two from each party, and think about what happened to their seats in the general election. The two Democratic incumbents who fell were Joseph Crowley, who lost his bid for renomination in New York’s 14th District to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Michael Capuano, who lost to Ayanna Pressley in the 7th District of Massachusetts. Both challengers were more liberal than the incumbents they beat.

The two Republican incumbents to lose primaries were Rep. Mark Sanford in South Carolina’s 1st District and Robert Pittenger in North Carolina’s 9th District. Sanford lost to a far more conservative Katie Arrington, while Pittenger’s defeat was at the hands of evangelical minister Mark Harris.

One can argue over whether the voters in the first two districts traded up or down—Ocasio-Cortez over Crowley and Pressley over Capuano—but both seats would have been safe had either candidate won the primaries, Ocasio-Cortez ended up winning the general election by 64.5 points, and Pressley’s race was uncontested.

The same can’t be said for the two GOP-held districts, though both would seem to be reasonably safe districts for Republicans. In 2012, Romney carried Sanford’s South Carolina district by 18 points, and President Trump won it by 13 points. Arrington unseated Sanford in the primary, at least in part, because of a tweet by Trump shortly before the primary criticizing Sanford, who had been less than an enthusiastic supporter of the president. Last month, Arrington lost the Palmetto State district by 1.4 points in one of the three biggest upsets of election night (the others were GOP losses by Rep. Steve Russell in Oklahoma’s 5th District and Rep. Dan Donovan in New York’s 11th District). The truth is that in this past election, upsets were few and far between—not a single Senate or gubernatorial race could be said to be a true upset.

Pittenger’s seemingly safe North Carolina district voted for Romney and Trump—both by 11 points. But the controversial Harris was so far out there, ideologically speaking, that his margin over Democrat Dan McCready initially appeared to be just 905 votes, one of the closer House races in the country. Soon after the election, reports began to surface that there were absentee-ballot irregularities, and eventually highly credible evidence emerged that the election may have been stolen by operatives working on behalf of Harris. There is now a strong likelihood of a new election being called, a mulligan election under circumstances that would be most unfavorable to Republicans, with a strong chance of the seating ending up in Democratic hands as well. In short, Republican primary voters effectively punted away two seats that should have safely been in the GOP column.

One of my favorite sayings is from my friend, the very wise columnist Mark Shields, who is fond of saying that he would rather be a member of a church seeking converts than one trying to drive out heretics. This is not at all to argue that incumbents should never have primary challenges, but that when those primary voters ditch a highly electable incumbent for a considerably more exotic and problematic alternative, it is self-defeating. President Reagan used to say that the Republican Party should be a “big tent” party, with plenty of room for divergent philosophies and styles, but there are signs that the GOP tent is getting smaller.

One can certainly argue that Ocasio-Cortez’s challenge to Crowley and Pressley’s challenge to Capuano were not exactly consistent with a big-tent philosophy, but the fact is, Democrats ended up easily holding onto both seats. And in the case of Crowley’s seat, the growing minority share of that district’s population and its primary electorate meant that it was only a matter of time before a middle-aged Irish guy was going to lose that seat to a minority Democrat.

But the GOP tent is not just getting smaller, it would seem to be affecting behavior in ways that may also be destructive. The Senate race in Arizona is certainly an example of questionable strategy. The contest pitted Rep. Martha McSally, the first female combat-fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and heretofore a pretty centrist House member, against Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a fairly liberal member who had been tacking toward the middle as the race got closer. McSally wisely chose to step over to the right in order for her to secure the GOP nomination over two very conservative and likely unelectable Republican rivals, but once she nailed down the primary, she inexplicably kept moving hard right in a state that has been shifting from very red toward a purple swing state. By the time the general election came around, the choice for voters was a fairly centrist Democrat versus a Republican who was thought to be fairly moderate trying to desperately to come across as an extremist.

McSally lost the Senate race and, if a Thursday Washington Post report is accurate, is no longer expected to be Gov. Doug Ducey’s choice to fill out the remainder of the term for the seat formerly held by the late Sen. John McCain and now held by Sen. Jon Kyl. A move toward the middle might well have either won McSally the race or at the very least, improved her chance of an appointment by having finished stronger.

When things are going well for a party, when they seem to have something of a tailwind in terms of the political environment, they can afford to make mistakes and poor choices here and there without it costing them much. But in a year with something of a headwind, the circumstances are less forgiving for mistakes. That’s a lesson Republicans learned last month.

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