The recent Senate primaries are noteworthy for many reasons, but one will certainly have relevance in 2016 concerns fundraising. After the government shutdown in 2013 big dollar donors and groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce woke up. They began recruiting capable candidates and raising lots and lots of money. The tea party did not.
The Hill reports that the Chamber spent about $10 million backing mainstream conservatives. The comparison is stark:
The nearly $10 million spent by the Chamber this cycle on its preferred candidates in House and Senate races is more than three times what the Senate Conservatives Fund has spent on its picks this cycle, and their only engagement in a competitive Senate primary so far came up short.
In Kentucky, groups backing Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R) unsuccessful primary challenger, Matt Bevin, spent $664,000 in independent expenditures boosting him and another $800,000 attacking McConnell, led by SCF.
Groups supporting McConnell spent at least $1.4 million, according to a review of Federal Election Commission filings by The Hill. McConnell spent another $9 million of his own warchest to keep his seat.
By finding campaign-tested conservatives free of scandal, these groups won key primaries. (“Their biggest victory may have come two weeks ago when establishment pick Thom Tillis made it through a competitive Republican primary and avoided a runoff for Senate in North Carolina, buoyed by $2.4 million in spending by outside groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads. Only about $13,000 was spent against him, and less than $160,000 was spent boosting his two main conservative opponents, pastor Mark Harris and physician Greg Brannon.”)
Meanwhile, the right-wing Beltway groups who hectored Republicans to shut down the government took in money, but they spent a lot on themselves. Moreover, the prairie fire that burned in 2010 and 2012 had been doused by the wave of anti-GOP sentiment following the shutdown. Many Republicans sobered up, declining to back the extreme primary candidates in 2014. Others, realized there were mainstream conservatives like Tillis who could actually win. And truth be told, the so-called tea party was never as big or as organized as liberals imagined.
We’ve reached the time, it seems, that tea party candidates (and many aren’t going to use that name) can raise enough for a House race or maybe a low-cost Senate race. But big national campaigns are out of the question. There is no suggestion these groups can raise nearly a billion dollars, which is what it will cost to win a presidential election. And the tea party has so turned off mainstream voters and donors that they’d be tempted to sit on their hands or even –gasp! — support Hillary Clinton if the alternative is an erratic, unprepared Republican who seems destined to lose anyway.
In short, if they didn’t realize it before, far right-wing candidates don’t have the money or the votes to win in big elections against capable Republicans. That is why, for example, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been trying too hard to make himself acceptable to mainstream Republicans. Unfortunately for him, his eccentric statements on everything from WWII to Dick Cheney and bizarrely out-of-touch views on issues like droning Americans who have taken up with the Taliban and Iran have revealed a candidate whose instincts are closer to his father than to the rest of the GOP. Consider this report:
Rand Paul had just finished his opening remarks at a private gathering of Republican power brokers at the Four Seasons in Georgetown last fall when Phil Gramm, the former senator from Texas, shot up his hand with the first question.
“Let’s say you knew for certain that by May 1 of next year that Iran would have generated enough highly refined uranium to build a bomb,” Mr. Gramm said. “Would you support attacking?” Mr. Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, had a dodge at the ready. “Can I give you Romney’s answer?” he asked, drawing a few laughs from the crowd as he said that he did not answer hypotheticals.
Mr. Gramm demanded more of a response.
“What would you do?” the former senator insisted, but Mr. Paul was again vague.
An awkward silence fell over the room, and the moderator at the gathering quickly moved on to the next question.
Ummm. That’s a big problem. (And it is certainly not Reaganesque.) His hesitancy to strike Iran is not a sentiment shared by Republicans generally or the country at large. (It will however delight The Nation, Berkeley students and The National Iranian American Council, but maybe not even all of them either.)
The problem of mainstreaming oneself is not Rand Paul’s alone, although he has the most acute problem. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) rattled the business community over the shutdown that he’ll need to do a lot of reassuring if he decides to run. He, however, has found his pro-defense voice along with most of the GOP.
None of this means that a deeply flawed or inept mainstream candidate is safe from challenge on the right. He or she certainly is as we see in the Mississippi Senate primary race. But it does mean that to win big states or the country as a whole an extreme a radical anti-government or isolationist candidate is going to have an uphill battle. This does confirm, incidentally, that the GOP is a conservative party with which some libertarians share goals, but it is not a libertarian party on social, defense or economic issues. (And for those who think the Koch brothers, staunch libertarians on everything from gay marriage to foreign policy, are running the show they might want to re-think their conspiracy theories.)
Donors and voters beware: They’ll be a lot of tea partiers trying to clean up their act, but you can only hide so much.