We’re getting a terrific example of how contemporary parties work out in Missouri right now. It’s probably going to end with Todd Akin dropping out of the Senate race there, basically for one awful comment.
The first lesson, which is pretty obvious, is how nationalized our politics have become. People have been quite properly referring back to George Allen’s “macaca” incident; it’s worth remembering that what was notable about that one was how new it was for something that a Senate candidate said to become a national controversy. And that one at least was an incumbent Senator with national pretensions. Now it’s happening with a fairly obscure challenger (although he is at least a House member) in a contest that’s drawn very little national attention until now.
The second lesson is one about how parties work, and it’s also in part a story about nationalization. Once upon a time, a nominee in trouble would survive or be pushed off the ticket by the state party organization, or perhaps the various local party organizations. Then, fifty years ago or so, we entered a period in most states of candidate-centered elections in which pretty much no one could push a dud candidate out.
But for the past twenty or thirty years or so, we’ve moved into a new party-centered era. It’s still true that Akin controls the Missouri Republican Senate nomination, and is technically free to keep it as long as he likes. But the nomination is useless without Republican Party support. And while support from formal party organizations (such as the National Republican Senate Committee) is part of that, it’s a relatively small party compared to the larger Republican party network, which includes those who contribute resources (such as the various famous big-money donors), those who coordinate and spend those resources, such as Karl Rove, as well as GOP-aligned interest groups and the Republican partisan press. If they act together, those in the party network can just about shut down any Republican campaign – and to deny any politician a future in the party if he or she does not comply. Similarly, at earlier stages, those groups, when acting together, can pretty much guarantee a nomination to any candidate.
Of course, there’s a lot of room in that “if they act together” condition. If, for example, groups which oppose abortion decide to rally to Akin, then there’s no mechanism within the party to force them to back off. Generally, these kinds of internal conflict are settled, at least temporarily, in the results of primary elections and other nomination procedures, with all internal party groups more or less agreeing to abide in some fashion by the results of nomination battles. But outside of nominations, there are really no formal procedures available to resolve those sorts of conflicts. And since no one within the party controls all party resources, when groups disagree the party’s effectiveness can suffer.
We’ll see how this all plays out with Akin. But however it winds up – and it’s possible that Akin could stay on the ballot and defy the party even if it unites against him, although it would surely doom his chances – remember two things. One is that long ago this probably would have played out entirely within Missouri and its Republican Party; in the 1960s and 1970s it might have hurt Akin but no one would have been able to push him off the ticket. So that’s the history of it. And the second part is that if there are internal disagreements, we’ll get new evidence about which groups control more resources within the Republican coalition.