The mentality, on full display during the right-wing excuse-mongering after Ken Cuccinelli II predictably lost the Virginia governor’s race, assumes that no matter how objectionable the behavior, language and anti-government attitude, they are entitled to the votes of everyone who considers themselves to be a Republican. However, they object when less extreme Republicans run for office, as Jim DeMint once did by declaring it was better to have 30 real conservatives than a majority in the U.S. Senate.
The logic is upside down, to say the least. In the case of, for example, Delaware, Mike Castle was the most conservative candidate who could have been elected to the Delaware Senate seat; right-wingers would have been wise to support him. Instead they lost the seat with I’m-not-a-witch Christine O’Donnell. By contrast, if center-right voters perceive that right-wing candidates are much farther from their own positions and would promote dysfunctional government, they have every reason to vote for a Democrat who is closer ideologically to them and willing to wheel and deal to avoid gridlock. In the case of Castle, the right wing was acting irrationally (unless losing is better than winning) while in the latter case, voters act so as to maximize their own interests (i.e. find someone ideologically closest who would do the least damage).
In the case of Cuccinelli, right-wing pundits bemoan that he was abandoned by the “donor class.” This is misguided and betrays a lack of familiarity with Cuccinelli. To begin with, Cuccinelli didn’t have the personal skills, relationships and determination to be as good a fundraiser as Gov. Bob McDonnell. Not to put too fine a point on it, but personality and likability matter when you are asking people for money. Cuccinelli also scared donors, projecting an air of recklessness and a nose for controversy. With the government shutdown highlighting how badly things can go wrong when wide-eyed radicals justify extreme measures, donors were, not surprisingly, wary about giving Cuccinelli money. And suburban Republicans were unwilling to trust him. McAuliffe, they reasoned, was a business-friendly Democrat who couldn’t do much damage in a state with a conservative legislature.
Conservatives, of all people, should understand enlightened self-interest. By running candidates objectionable to a segment of their natural allies, they are asking for trouble — and defeat.
There are three (at least) situations in which right-wing candidates nevertheless can expect support from middle-of-the-road Republicans. First, when the majority or filibuster rides on the election of a Republican, they can appeal to Republicans to support any minimally acceptable Republican. Second, when the alternative is horrible, you take the lesser of two evils. Most Republicans agreed that virtually any Republican would have been better than Barack Obama in 2012. (If they had been fooled in 2008, they recovered their bearings after four years.) And finally, in order to protect very critical interests, moderates often swallow hard to accept a more ideologically extreme candidate than they would otherwise countenance. If the conduct of a war or the Supreme Court is up for grabs, to take two examples, there is a “rally ’round the Republican” phenomenon.
There is one final factor to consider. Even if moderates come “home” to the GOP in swing states, there are not enough of them to win elections if you lose the left and middle. That is actually what happened in Virginia, where Cuccinelli got 92 percent of Republicans but still lost.
We can debate whether Republicans should act in these ways, but experience and the power of self-interest tell us that they will. Like complaining about the mainstream media, right-wingers who spend time whining about reality are wasting their energy. Combined with simple math (i.e. not enough Republicans to win in swing states) the results are obvious.The bottom line: It is very, very hard to get mainstream conservatives to support a radical right-winger when a Democrat perceived to be a middle-of-the-roader is on the ballot. The GOP would do well to keep this in mind in 2016.