Which definition of conservative does your Republican primary candidate prefer?

Watch a marathon session of Republican ads — trust us, we did — and it's hard to tell where the Republican Party  sees itself five years from now.

The one thing that Republicans seem to entirely agree on is what isn't conservative. Being conservative means not being Barack Obama. Being conservative means not supporting any legislation that happens to share a name with Barack Obama. Being conservative means not being a Washington insider — or at least shaking your head at everyone who crosses your path while you're stuck on the inside. Look at every negative TV ad this election (or at least the vast majority of them), and it's clear that Republicans can render fearsome displays of "not conservative" with great ease.


Republican Congressman Tom Cotton speaks to members of the Arkansas Farm Bureau at a candidate forum in North Little Rock, Ark., on April 22, 2014. (Danny Johnston/AP)

However, the definition of what is conservative doesn't have quite the same consensus. In fact, there is hardly any agreement among the myriad Republican candidates about what their favorite word means. There is of course the dictionary definition of conservative — "a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics" — but what does that mean policy-wise in 2014? Voters who watch Republican campaign ads this year would come away with a million different ideas of what being conservative means, very few of which have any relation to concrete policy ideas.

Despite the fact that there is no consensus on what "conservative" should mean (except what it isn't), Republican candidates still splash the word over all their campaign materials. It's also interesting to note the Republican candidates who haven't noted their conservatism in campaign ads, including West Virginia Senate candidate Shelley Moore Capito, Oregon Senate candidate Monica Wehby and Kentucky Senate candidate Tom Cotton — Republicans in states with a considerable Democratic history, or Republicans who had little need to differentiate themselves from Republican challengers. Other candidates, like Mitch McConnell and former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds, mention their conservative credentials once and call that a commercial — they have plenty of experience-listing and retail politicking imagery to fill a 30-second spot without resorting to conservative word salad. Commercials crowded with "conservative" name-dropping are the special purview of the longshot or the candidate facing tough competition. If you don't have the poll numbers, there's always the chance that saying conservative three times in a row will bring the ghost of Reagan himself to bestow an endorsement upon you.

In 2014, the Republican candidates may not need to fully articulate their platform to succeed; the GOP has a built-in midterm advantage, and voters often vote against the party of the incumbent president during their sixth year in office. However, using conservative as a catch-all for candidates in the establishment and tea party candidates and economics-focused candidates and social issues-focused candidates will leave the party with few clues as to what the wider electorate would like to see in a conservative presidential candidate.

Here's a rough guide to what we think these candidates have decided conservative means, as well as how often they deploy the word.

Iowa senate candidate Joni Ernst


conservative (n.): one who makes the big spenders in Washington "squeal."

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in 31-second spot: 3

Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel

conservative (n.): person who will repeal Obamacare and fight wasteful spending (a definition which seems to encompass nearly every single Republican politician)

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in 31-second spot: 5

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran

conservative (n.): a person who voted for all the things that Thad Cochran has voted for

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in 32-second spot: 1

Idaho House Candidate Mike Simpson

conservative (n.): one who is "Idaho tough"

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in 31-second spot: 2

Kentucky Senate candidate Matt Bevin

conservative (n.): Person who is not Mitch McConnell

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in one 31-second spot: 4

North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis

conservative (n.): "It's not something you say, it's something you do."

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in 31-second spot: 2

Alaska Senate candidate Dan Sullivan

conservative (n.): One who is endorsed by Club for Growth

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in 31-second spot: 5

Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse

1. conservative (n.): A person who fights for Nebraska conservative values and balancing budgets

2. conservative (n.): A person who desires to move the U.S. Capitol to Nebraska

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in nearly six-minute video: 8

Georgia Senate candidate Paul Broun

conservative (n.): A person who is"defending Georgia conservative values"

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in 31-second spot: 6 (including the rare "two mentions of  "conservative" in one ad still maneuver," as shown above)

Georgia Senate candidate Jack Kingston

conservative (v.): a word used to describe things that drive America and Jack Kingston.

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in on 15-second spot: 2

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell

conservative (n.): One who has Mitch McConnell's legislative history

Number of times the word conservative is mentioned in 33-second spot: 1

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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Philip Bump · May 20