Can Republicans Avoid the Next Todd Akin?

No matter how far they veer to the right, someone can always outflank them. As a result, the GOP has to worry about primaries in a way Democrats don’t.

KIRKWOOD, MO - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) speaks to supporters during a fundraiser, which was also attended by Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, on September 24, 2012 in Kirkwood, Missouri. Gingrich was in the St. Louis area to support Akin's U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Claire McCaskill. 
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Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Sept. 26, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

Primar­ies some­times amount to healthy com­pet­i­tion. Some­times, they’re bit­ter in­terne­cine con­flicts. But al­ways, they are risky. This year, that risk is be­ing borne by the Re­pub­lic­an Party alone.

In one of the Sen­ate land­scape’s most re­mark­able de­vel­op­ments, the Demo­crat­ic Party ap­pears primed to avoid primar­ies next year in all the battle­ground states. (It has one nasty fight in Hawaii, between Sen. Bri­an Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, but Re­pub­lic­ans haven’t won a Sen­ate race there since 1970.) So while Re­pub­lic­ans gird them­selves for dam­aging primar­ies in Alaska, Geor­gia, Iowa, Ken­tucky, and North Car­o­lina — con­tests that will de­term­ine wheth­er the GOP can take con­trol of the Sen­ate in 2015 — Demo­crats are com­fort­ably pre­par­ing for the gen­er­al elec­tion.

The gravest dangers are the stuff of Re­pub­lic­an night­mares. These in­tra-party battles can pro­duce nom­in­ees like Todd Akin and Christine O’Don­nell, the kind of un­elect­able can­did­ates who not only lose but also em­bar­rass the party na­tion­ally. Re­pub­lic­ans run the greatest risk of such a de­bacle in Geor­gia, where Rep. Paul Broun’s fire-and-brim­stone de­nun­ci­ations ran­ging from evol­u­tion to Pres­id­ent Obama don’t dis­qual­i­fy him from win­ning the party’s mul­tic­an­did­ate primary but very well could doom him in a gen­er­al elec­tion, even in the right-lean­ing Peach State. (So far, the worst Broun has done is call evol­u­tion a “lie from the pit of hell,” but stay tuned.) Mean­while, Demo­crats have united be­hind Michelle Nunn, daugh­ter of former Sen. Sam Nunn.

Alaska Re­pub­lic­ans face a sim­il­ar di­lemma. Joe Miller, the party’s 2010 nom­in­ee, threatens to ree­m­erge while two es­tab­lish­ment-friendly can­did­ates battle each oth­er. Miller’s er­rat­ic cam­paign — one of his per­son­al se­cur­ity guards hand­cuffed a re­port­er — nearly gave the Sen­ate seat to the Demo­crats, had it not been for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s suc­cess­ful write-in reelec­tion cam­paign. (Miller had de­feated her in the primary.)

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich, like fel­low red-state Demo­crats Mark Pry­or, Mary Landrieu, and Kay Hagan, hasn’t even had a whiff of a ser­i­ous primary chal­lenger.

And it’s not only the next Todd Akin that Re­pub­lic­ans need to worry about. It’s the next Tommy Thompson, too. The pop­u­lar former Wis­con­sin gov­ernor was al­most the per­fect can­did­ate on pa­per in 2012, but be­fore fa­cing Demo­crat­ic Rep. Tammy Bald­win, he ran in a four-man primary. Thompson won, but the tough fight left him battered, broke, and vul­ner­able. “He blew all his money go­ing through the primary,” said Bri­an Schim­ming, vice chair­man of the Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an Party. “So when he gets through the primary, it was like three weeks be­fore he was up on the air. [Bald­win] piled on im­me­di­ately.”

Schim­ming ad­ded, “If he hadn’t had as ugly a primary, we could have won that seat.”

Even strong gen­er­al-elec­tion can­did­ates are dis­trac­ted from their ul­ti­mate goal when sub­merged in a battle for their party’s nom­in­a­tion. Es­sen­tial tasks such as mes­saging, voter-turnout op­er­a­tions, and fun­drais­ing can all suf­fer. “When you’re fight­ing a primary like that, it is very dif­fi­cult to do nuts-and-bolts things like build­ing an op­er­a­tion for a gen­er­al elec­tion,” said Matt Canter, spokes­man for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. Such a di­lemma could af­flict the even­tu­al GOP nom­in­ee in North Car­o­lina, where state House Speak­er Thom Tillis, while not a per­fect can­did­ate, could be forced in­to a costly primary against a bat­tery of tea-party foes while Hagan raises money largely un­im­peded. The same could hap­pen in Louisi­ana, where some con­ser­vat­ives are still mulling a run des­pite GOP Rep. Bill Cas­sidy’s pres­ence in the race.

Re­pub­lic­ans lack the same sort of clear front-run­ner in Iowa, but that race of­fers its own com­plic­a­tions. Nowhere is the dif­fer­ence in ap­proaches between the parties stark­er than in the Hawkeye State, where the GOP field might ul­ti­mately run six can­did­ates deep. The nom­in­ee likely won’t be picked un­til a mid-June con­ven­tion. Demo­crats, mean­while, co­alesced be­hind Rep. Bruce Bra­ley from al­most the mo­ment Sen. Tom Har­kin an­nounced his re­tire­ment.

And in Ken­tucky, Sen­ate GOP Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell has been forced to de­fend his right flank against in­sur­gent Matt Bev­in while the op­pon­ent he should be fo­cus­ing on, Demo­crat Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, has a clear path to her party’s nom­in­a­tion. Mc­Con­nell’s chal­lenge is dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers’; for one, not even the most par­tis­an Demo­crat doubts that his polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion will be primed for a gen­er­al-elec­tion fight re­gard­less of a primary. But the po­s­i­tions he takes now — such as po­ten­tially lead­ing Con­gress in­to a gov­ern­ment shut­down — might make good primary polit­ics but come back to hurt him later.

Con­ser­vat­ives will con­tend (in an ar­gu­ment mirrored by anti­es­tab­lish­ment lib­er­als) that primar­ies are like a sports tour­na­ment that de­term­ines the best team: They help the party find the best can­did­ate. Re­cent his­tory can be read this way. Marco Ru­bio was ori­gin­ally just an un­wanted tea-party chal­lenger to Charlie Crist in Flor­ida, and some of the feck­less can­did­ates who cost the party the ma­jor­ity last year — Denny Re­hberg in Montana and Rick Berg in North Dakota — nev­er faced cred­ible op­pos­i­tion in the primary. “I think, more times than not, a primary is ac­tu­ally good for the nom­in­ee,” said Matt Hoskins, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, a group that of­ten en­cour­ages chal­lenges to GOP in­cum­bents. “It forces them to sharpen their can­did­ate skills. It el­ev­ates their pro­file and of­fers a great­er op­por­tun­ity to define them­selves than if they have no op­pos­i­tion.” (Hoskins is quick to note that his group didn’t en­dorse Akin last year un­til he won the primary.)

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans hope the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, which last year largely avoided play­ing in primar­ies, steps in to ag­gress­ively ward off po­ten­tial weak nom­in­ees such as Broun. (Said one seni­or GOP strategist not con­nec­ted to the com­mit­tee: “I think there were some mis­takes made [last year]. But I think, like any good op­er­a­tion, you learn from mis­takes, and you move for­ward.”)

That’s what the GOP might have to do. When it comes to primar­ies, few­er is not ne­ces­sar­ily bet­ter. But it sure is a lot less risky.

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