Last week Senate Republicans suggested that the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) would no longer take a complete hands off approach in the primaries, but, rather, would work with grassroots groups to try to find the best candidates. There are a few points at issue.
First, why were they not doing this already? Well, the grass roots rebelled when the insiders backed candidates like Gov. Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio in 2008, so the NRSC went into a crouch in 2010 and 2012, as Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell and others wiped out. So you can blame the insiders for rolling over and playing dead and the grass roots for shooting themselves in the foot. Either way there will only be 45 GOP senators beginning next year.
Second, whether insiders or tea partiers give input, the Republican voters ultimately have to make the choice. It is primary voters who, if the GOP is to win general elections, must exercise more discretion. The party can provide information to voters and insiders can back or not back certain candidates, but voters, grass-roots groups and conservative right-wing bloggers and talk show hosts have to decide if they want to keep selecting the unelectable to fritter away Senate seats in Colorado, Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Missouri and elsewhere, as they did in 2010 and 2012.
Consider that in 1980, with Ronald Reagan at the head of the ticket, Republicans under Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) picked up 12 seats and won the Senate majority, taking seats in places like Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania. These days the winning Republicans from those states (and probably even Baker) would be weeded out in the primary by the right-wing base and talk show crowd. Again in 2002, the GOP won back the Senate majority with moderates taking a seat in Minnesota (Norm Coleman) and incumbents like Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) holding on in blue states. It seems the art of selecting competent candidates well-suited for their states has been lost.
Third, insiders can be dim and cut off from reality, just as grassroots organizers can be. Do the new NRSC chiefs Sens. Jim Moran (R-Kan.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) know anything about choosing candidates in Illinois or New Hampshire? I don’t know, but it is concerning when the freshman senator from Texas begins by popping off with the very sort of language that puts off voters outside of the conservative base. (“I’m pretty certain Mitt Romney actually French-kissed Barack Obama.”)
The point is that you need people with good judgment and out-of-the-bubble-of-the-base thinking heading the effort if you are going to expand and not further contract the GOP’s appeal.
And finally, it matters much more to the success of the GOP what the criteria for Republican primary candidates are than it does who is throwing in his two cents. If every candidate in a blue state who comes out in favor of gay marriage or opposes some piece of favored conservative legislation gets the boot, the Republicans will never win Senate seats in places like Illinois, New Mexico or Minnesota. So long as the primaries in less than deep red states become contests for who can climb farther out on the right wing, the Democrats will keep winning. And frankly, even senators from red states like Texas can hurt by being unprofessional and unpleasant in their rhetoric.
In some cases the more conservative candidate in a primary can be more skilled and more viable (Rubio, for example). However, the problem for Republicans has been that in stressing ideology and cheering venom directed toward D.C. and the mainstream media, the quality control has gone downhill. When all that matters is ideological purity, you can get uniformed, nutty and unprepared candidates who crash and burn as soon as they venture out in public. And sometimes the mushy incumbent is still the incumbent because he or she has figured out how to walk the line between party loyalty and survival.
Primary voters who want to capture Senate seats have to think how their nominees will fare in debates, come across to swing voters and express themselves outside the confines of the conservative base. If they don’t, Democrats will soon have a super-majority in the Senate.