Let’s hope Republicans get over their paranoia about primaries

October 18, 2013
John Boehner EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
John Boehner EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

The big story on the 2014 elections late this week has been the Cook Political Report’s big shift of their ratings of 14 House seats towards the Democrats, thanks to damage the GOP sustained in the shutdown. In a good and detailed analysis, Cook’s David Wasserman gives the new lay of the land: “we are shifting our House Topline from a Republican gain of two to seven seats to a minimal net change of up to five seats in either party’s direction, with larger Democratic gains possible .”

Now, there’s plenty of time remaining before November 2014; expect memories of the shutdown to fade, and while it may end up having an impact, especially by changing candidate recruiting, so many things go into the outcome of an election cycle that it’s always hard to predict what will matter and what won’t.

That’s why this Cook announcement is such good news: because Cook (and Wasserman) are highly respected by insiders, there’s a better chance that Republicans will tie their memories of the shutdown debacle directly to an electoral cost.

That’s important, because probably the biggest problem with the House right now is Republicans with too much irrational paranoia about primary elections — and not nearly enough paranoia about general elections.

It’s in the nature of politicians to be paranoid about elections, no matter how safe they actually are. But thanks to a small number of high-profile upsets at the hands of conservative insurgents, many Republicans now direct almost all of their fear towards primaries. It’s not warranted: even last year, a redistricting year, only six House Republicans lost primaries and four of those were to other incumbents who were redistricted in with them; go back to the Tea Party 2010 elections. And only two were defeated for renomination, with one of those being a late party-switcher. But this paranoia is real, and has real consequences within the House.

Yes, for most House Republicans, worrying about a general election defeat in 2014 is also far-fetched. But there are still reasons for them to worry about getting damaged for general elections. Politicians have long careers to worry about. A dip this cycle could lead to a tougher challenger next time around. District demographic changes over time can make a seat less safe than it once seemed. And there’s always the next redistricting cycle and the possibility of falling into a truly competitive district. Those fears, too, can be real even if they aren’t all that realistic. And they create, for the most part, helpful incentives.

So anything that can help nudge Republicans back to being paranoid about November is a good thing indeed. And I suspect that this Cook update, along with all the polling we’ve seen this month, just might do the trick.

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Greg Sargent | October 18, 2013