The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fascinating recent history of political primary ‘meddling’

Dan Sullivan. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
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Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) would presumably like to run against Joe Miller (R) in the November election. Miller, the GOP's surprising 2010 nominee who eventually lost to Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) write-in bid, emerged from that campaign extremely unpopular and now fares worse than his primary opponents in general-election polling against Begich.

At the very least, Begich's supporters see former state attorney general Dan Sullivan as the biggest threat in Tuesday's three-way Republican Senate primary in the state, judging by ads run by the group Put Alaska First are any indication. The pro-Begich PAC has been hammering Sullivan, in a move that some Republicans critique as undue "meddling" in their primary.

A better descriptor than "meddling" might be: How politics works. There are two reasons for candidates (and their supporters) to get involved in the opposing primary. One is to help ensure a more favorable general election opponent. And the other is simply to start bashing your likely opponent early. Which of the two Put America First is doing isn't clear -- and doesn't really matter.

Such primary-ad "meddling" has a long history. The goal of those on the receiving end is clear: to paint the ads as somehow unethical or undemocratic. But that ignores the long history of such "meddling." Recently, the story has been Democrats targeting Republicans -- but that's only recently.

Let's work backward.

2014: North Carolina state House speaker Thom Tillis (R) accused Democrats of meddling in his Senate primary race after the Senate Majority PAC ran ads detailing allegations that Tillis staffers had improper (romantic) relationships with lobbyists. Tillis turned the ads around, trumpeting his conservative bona fides by saying that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was frightened of his candidacy. He won.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, a Democratic group also ran ads "attacking" Republican Tom Tancredo by pointing out his strenuous opposition to Obamacare and his opponent's support for its principles. The idea, apparently, was that the polarizing immigration hawk Tancredo would win. He didn't.

2012: Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) boosted the chances of Rep. Todd Akin in the GOP primary by "attacking" him as "the most conservative congressman in Missouri." The incumbent ran a series of spots targeting multiple candidates, but focused on strengthening Akin's credentials with the Republican primary audience while simultaneously making him less palatable to the broader population. Akin came from behind to win the primary, and McCaskill beat him in the general -- primarily thanks to Akin's controversial comments on rape.

This might be the best example of "meddling" paying off.

The same year, Democrats also hammered incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). He lost his primary election to Richard Mourdock -- who went on to lose in the general election thanks to his own Akin-esque problems.

2010: Reid himself ran the "meddling" playbook against former state senator Sue Lowden in Nevada. Reid's campaign put a tracker on Lowden's primary campaign, eventually catching her making a comment about bartering for health care -- with chickens. Lowden lost to tea-partier Sharron Angle, who the unpopular Reid managed to barely defeat in November.

Backers of New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) were much less successful in their attempts to pick a general election opponent. Corzine and the Democratic Governors Association hoped to face conservative Steve Lonegan (who eventually lost a 2013 Senate race to Sen. Cory Booker) rather than a guy named Chris Christie. Lonegan took 42 percent of the primary vote, but lost. And then so did Corzine.

2004: Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) was in the top tier of Democratic primary candidates for president when the conservative group Club For Growth decided to "go after him" in Iowa for being atypically liberal. Dean came in third place in Iowa, prompting him to give a now-famous speech aimed at riling up his supporters. It backfired.

2002: California Gov. Gray Davis (D) unleashed one of the most famous primary interventions in recent history. Facing the prospect of a race against former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan (R), Davis spent millions of dollars attacking him in the primary. Riordan, unlike Tillis this year, didn't fight back. The Davis campaign ran ads throughout the state on multiple subjects. While not the only reason, the ads helped businessman Bill Simon take the GOP nomination. Davis won handily. But within 12 months, he was ousted in the California recall of 2003.

2000: Rep. Michael Forbes (D-N.Y.) was seeking reelection to his House seat on Long Island after having switched parties in 1999. His former Republican colleagues sent mail to Democratic voters, detailing his conservative past. Forbes barely lost the primary, pledging that he would support the Democratic winner, Regina Seltzer, and campaign for her. Instead, he ran as an independent, handing the seat back to the Republican Party.

1998: A guy named Fred Tuttle, a 79-year-old alleged dairy farmer (but actual actor), is drafted into the Republican primary for Senate in Vermont as a joke. With a $16 campaign spending limit and a unique response for why people should vote for him ("I don't know"), Tuttle never seemed like a real threat to the chances of Republican candidate Jack McMullen. Regardless, McMullen blamed Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) for encouraging Tuttle's candidacy.

Tuttle, amazingly, won the primary. And Leahy won reelection.