Why Republicans Kill Their Darlings

Every time they seem to settle on a new standard-bearer, they find a reason to excommunicate him. What’s a 2016 presidential hopeful to do?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) arrives at the Senate Republican Policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol October 15, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The U.S. government shutdown is entering its 15th day as the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives remain gridlocked on funding the federal government. 
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Marin Cogan
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Marin Cogan
Oct. 24, 2013, 5 p.m.

What’s a GOP pres­id­en­tial hope­ful to do? In the past year, the party has cycled through one fa­vor­ite as­pir­ant after an­oth­er be­fore run­ning in­to a prob­lem: There’s no longer a single con­sensus about what makes a good can­did­ate. In­ev­it­able de­vi­ations from con­ser­vat­ive or­tho­doxy are seen as dis­qual­i­fy­ing sins. Re­pub­lic­ans have a habit of killing their darlings.

Ted Cruz seemed to have the right idea. To be­come the tea party’s fa­vor­ite can­did­ate, he out­flanked the en­tire Sen­ate GOP. But that vic­tory came at the cost of a pub­lic twice as likely to view him un­fa­vor­ably as fa­vor­ably and ser­i­ous an­ger from with­in his own party — so much that it’s dif­fi­cult to en­vi­sion him win­ning the nom­in­a­tion in 2016, let alone the pres­id­ency. Be­fore him, the im­mensely pop­u­lar Marco Ru­bio was the party’s fa­vor­ite can­did­ate, un­til he com­mit­ted the un­par­don­able sin of work­ing to pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Be­fore that, it was Chris Christie, whom the GOP ad­ored un­til he got a little too cozy with the pres­id­ent in the wake of Hur­ricane Sandy. It’s enough to make Rand Paul seem like their best op­tion — un­til you con­sider that he’s angered the tea party by sup­port­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­form, the es­tab­lish­ment by es­pous­ing isol­a­tion­ist for­eign policy views, and his own liber­tari­an base by sup­port­ing Mitt Rom­ney in 2012. Veer right, you’re damned; veer left, you’re jammed; play it up the cen­ter, you’re toast.

The cycle of anoint­ment and re­pu­di­ation echoes the 2012 GOP primar­ies, when Re­pub­lic­ans el­ev­ated one can­did­ate after an­oth­er: Michele Bach­mann, Her­man Cain, Newt Gin­grich, Rick Perry, and Rick San­tor­um. When voters fi­nally settled on Rom­ney, the can­did­ate had lower fa­vor­ab­il­ity and high­er un­fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings than any pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee in mod­ern his­tory.

GOP strategist Rick Wilson calls this “the High­lander the­ory,” after the ‘90s TV show about the Scot­tish war­ri­or who needs to be­head oth­er im­mor­tals be­cause there can be only one. Ted Cruz be­came The One by ec­lipsing Ru­bio, who had as­cen­ded only a few months earli­er. “Ted Cruz and Marco Ru­bio made sim­il­ar mis­takes in op­pos­ite dir­ec­tions,” says Ben Dome­nech, a seni­or fel­low at the Heart­land In­sti­tute and the pub­lish­er of The Fed­er­al­ist. “Ru­bio ob­vi­ously tacked to­ward the cen­ter with a push for com­ing to­geth­er on im­mig­ra­tion policy, and that did dam­age to his stand­ing with the con­ser­vat­ive base. Cruz on the oth­er hand tacked to the right in a way that helped his stand­ing with base but hurt [his] stand­ing with cent­rists who had been pre­vi­ously open to the idea of him.”

This di­vi­sion in the party — with the Right driv­ing for pur­ity and the es­tab­lish­ment brist­ling — was most re­cently evid­ent in the gov­ern­ment shut­down. But its im­print is vis­ible in the bur­geon­ing field of Sen­ate and House com­pet­i­tions, too. Al­most a dozen Re­pub­lic­an House mem­bers, such as long­time Idaho Re­pub­lic­an Mike Simpson, are fa­cing primar­ies from the right, with more chal­lenges ex­pec­ted be­fore the cycle be­gins next year. “This is a key mo­ment for the tea party to de­cide how best to use its re­sources and wheth­er to really go in be­hind can­did­ates who need sup­port [against Demo­crats], as op­posed to wast­ing re­sources against can­did­ates who have mar­gin­al dif­fer­ence from people who might chal­lenge them” from the right, Dome­nech says.

But the High­lander the­ory could have the greatest im­pact on the Sen­ate. Already, six Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents — Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and Sens. Lind­sey Gra­ham, Thad Co­chran, Mi­chael En­zi, Pat Roberts, and Lamar Al­ex­an­der — face primary chal­lenges from the right. Most of those seats aren’t at risk of a Demo­crat­ic takeover, but the in­terne­cine battles there could dis­tract at­ten­tion from the task of win­ning a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity. The real ques­tion, Wilson says, is “how much money are you will­ing to spend to knock off these guys, and how many dol­lars does [the in­tern­al fight] take from [the fight against] Landrieu, Pry­or, and Be­gich? Those guys are get­ting a free ride be­cause we’re more will­ing to chase pur­ity and keep 40 votes then we’re will­ing to go out and get Demo­crats that are weak.” And there have been rum­blings about chal­lenges for oth­er sen­at­ors, such as Texas con­ser­vat­ive John Cornyn, No. 2 in GOP lead­er­ship.

“They have to find a way to uni­fy the two sides and leave some neut­ral ground,” Wilson says. “Pur­ity is a lovely thing in soul, but a ter­rible thing in the real, ugly world of polit­ics that can’t be wished away with ma­gic­al think­ing or uni­corn dust.” There, the only thing that gets wished away is the latest fa­vor­ite.

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