Okay, Republicans who want a majority party: Here’s your chance.
Today’s big political news is that Shelley Moore Capito is running for the Senate in West Virginia. She’s been passing on opportunities to run for some time now, as she's generally been considered the GOP's best potential candidate in that state, which has trended strongly Republican over the last two decades. Don’t forget that West Virginia was one of only five states (plus the District of Columbia) to stick with Jimmy Carter in 1980 and then one of ten (plus the District) to support Mike Dukakis in 1988. In 2012, it was the fifth strongest state for Mitt Romney. That’s about as big a movement as a state can make, and it makes the two West Virginia Democrats in the Senate something of an oddity – and it makes Jay Rockefeller (or an open seat if he retires) a huge target for the GOP.
So it’s potentially good news for Republicans that Capito is running. If, that is, she’s not immediately knocked out by a primary challenge from RINO-calling conservatives, while everyone else in the party sits around egging them on or cowering in fear.
And yet the first thing that’s happened is that the Club for Growth immediately took aim at Capito. And that’s not all. There’s also been a wave of speculation about a primary challenge to Georgia’s Sen. Saxby Chambliss, with former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel talking about making the run (via Political Wire).
Now, in both cases, conservatives certainly can argue that these are Republican states which should be represented by senators (even) more conservative than Capito or Chambliss. But Republicans shouldn’t fool themselves: Potential candidates around the nation are watching. As I’ve been saying for a while, the biggest recruitment failures for the GOP in 2012 weren’t the clear mistakes in the cases of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock — they were the failures to find solid candidates in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other tough but competitive states.
Basically, what it comes down to is: If a potentially strong and basically conservative candidate such as Capito can’t be nominated, then why should anyone with a safe Republican seat in the House or other good options risk a Senate run? If Chambliss gets knocked off, who is safe? And again: If incumbents aren’t safe from primary challenges, why should they bother running?
Again, it makes lots of sense for activists to target primaries in states that their party should win, and Georgia and West Virginia might qualify. Still, the problem for Republicans right now is hardly a lack of ideological loyalty. But as long as activists keep pretending that it is, and no one fights back, the candidate gap is likely to grow larger and larger. Some conservatives will say that they would rather have 30 great senators than 55 Republicans who sometimes stray — and that’s apt to be exactly what they get.