Do Republicans really have a primary problem?
Less than a month after prominent losses in several Senate races, including Rep. Todd Akin’s shellacking in Missouri, some GOP leaders say the answer is yes.
To retake the federal government, they say, they must avoid nominees like Akin or Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, who struggled in the general election after making controversial post-primary statements about rape and abortion.
“Candidates and campaigns matter,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said after suggesting that his party’s leadership should become more involved in a pre-primary screening process.
But avoiding Akin-like candidacies in 2014 will be much harder than it sounds, other Republicans and outside observers said.
Who does the picking? On what basis would candidates be picked? Where do voters fit in? And would hand-chosen candidates do any better than the current system?
Hardwiring preferred candidates “is a fool’s errand,” said George Connor, political science professor at Missouri State University in Springfield.
Such self-reflection and argument after an unexpected electoral beatdown is common. Indeed, some Republicans worry their party will overcompensate for Akin’s defeat, which they blame on a series of factors unique to this election cycle.
What’s more, they say, politics ought not to be just about what will win an election, but about electing people who carry out the party’s values.
Messy primary outcomes aren’t limited to the GOP. American politics is much more open than it was in 1934, when Tom Pendergast anointed Harry Truman as Missouri’s Democratic nominee. An open selection process often leads to candidates who do better with primary voters than the public at large.
For many Republicans, the Akin problem still stings. Party leaders expected to gain control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012, only to watch the chances slip away because of what they consider subpar candidates picked in low-turnout primaries.
“What’s (the) problem?” wrote conservative columnist Fred Barnes after Election Day. “In Senate races, it’s bad candidates: old hacks (Wisconsin), young hacks (Florida), youngsters (Ohio), tea party types who can’t talk about abortion sensibly (Missouri, Indiana), retreads (Virginia), lousy campaigners (North Dakota) and Washington veterans (Michigan). Losers all.”
Finding good candidates — even settling on whose definition of a good candidate to go with — is complicated.
“Grassroots people resent being told who to vote for,” said former Missouri House speaker Carl Bearden. “People distrust what is affectionately known as the establishment. Primaries are for choosing the candidates voters want to have.”
Additionally, some candidates — particularly wealthier ones — no longer rely on the party insiders. They would be unlikely to agree to step aside for a candidate chosen by party elders.
“You can’t control self-funded candidates,” Connor said. “That cat is out of the bag.”
Before blowing up the candidate selection machinery, some Republicans say their party faces a more fundamental issue: Did it lose Senate races because candidates were too conservative, or because they weren’t conservative enough?
That unanswered question popped up again last week in West Virginia, where a moderate Republican, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, announced her bid for a 2014 Senate seat.
Within hours, conservative organizations attacked the candidate.
“Congresswoman Capito has a long record of support of bailouts, pork and bigger government,” wrote Club for Growth president Chris Chocola. “That’s not the formula for GOP success in U.S. Senate races.”
It isn’t known if West Virginians will promote a conservative alternative to Capito, who enjoys some support from party moderates. But there’s no guarantee she will defeat a Democratic opponent even if she gets mainstream help and avoids a primary.
“Ultimately, we’re left with a democracy,” said Patrick Tuohey, who helped organize Sarah Steelman’s unsuccessful primary fight against Akin. “We don’t want kind of an oligarchy (picking candidates).”
Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas will step into the middle of the dispute in 2013 as the newly elected head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the main committee for helping Senate nominees. The group raised more than $100 million in the last election cycle to help GOP candidates in the general election.
Moran’s office declined several requests for an interview, referring The Star to national publications instead. He recently told The Associated Press it will take a couple of months to determine the committee’s role in primaries, on a state-by-state basis.
Already, though, the pitfalls of Moran’s new post are evident. Last week he said he was “encouraged” by Capito’s candidacy in a statement on Facebook and Twitter, then pulled his comments off the websites just six minutes later, according to the Sunlight Foundation’sPolitwoops
Other Republicans said the problem isn’t limited to candidates. The primary process itself, they say, sometimes sets the stage for general election headaches.
Activists who vote on single issues like abortion and immigration can dominate primaries, favoring candidates who take more aggressive positions. Some Republicans believe the presidential primary season pushed presidential nominee Mitt Romney into statements that hurt him against Barack Obama in the fall.
Primaries also often mean a circular firing squad.
In 2004, Claire McCaskill, then the state auditor, defeated Gov. Bob Holden in the Democratic primary — after sharply criticizing him. Those attacks left his supporters angry enough to stay home that November, costing her critical votes in her loss to Matt Blunt, whose father is Roy Blunt.
“Do some candidates say things that are not helpful? Yes,” said John Hancock, a longtime Republican consultant in Missouri. “You end up wearing your dirty clothes into the general election.”
And primaries can be costly. Combined, Missouri’s three GOP Senate candidates — Akin, Steelman and businessman John Brunner — spent $13 million in the August primary.
That spending made it harder for Akin to find resources against McCaskill, who saved most of her cash for the November election. Outside groups also targeted Akin.
Primaries also present an opportunity for mischief.
Missouri Republicans still believe McCaskill’s ads touting Akin as the “true conservative” before the August primary helped him defeat his GOP rivals.
There are suggestions for reform. Republican lawmakers in Missouri may consider a primary limited to registered party members in 2014, which would ban Democrats and independents from helping choose the GOP nominee. Kansas primaries are already closed.
And Hancock said the primary should be moved to an earlier date. An earlier primary would allow a nominee more time to raise money and recover from attacks from same-party rivals.
While party leadership might be unable to handpick a candidate, some expect earlier intervention in campaign finance decisions. GOP leaders, for example, could state publicly they won’t financially support marginal candidates in a particular race.
“A consensus of leaders could say, ‘This is our best candidate, right here,’ ” Hancock said. “We’re going to tell everyone who’s thinking about running, ‘Joe is our best candidate, and we’re going to get behind Joe publicly. We’re going to help finance his campaign.’”
That plan, though, might backfire with primary voters, who might object to a leadership-backed candidate. And if an unfavored candidate survived the primary, party leaders would be locked in the awkward position of sitting out a crucial race — exactly what happened with Akin’s campaign. (The losing candidate sent out another request for money last week.)
Some party officials say picking candidates can work. Roy Blunt, they say, was able to clear the field before his 2010 Senate race largely through hard work, persuasion and early fundraising. Even with that advantage, Blunt faced a primary challenge from tea party favorite Chuck Purgason.
And Hancock thinks picking nominees is easier in down-ballot races like the state legislature.
In Kansas, for example, Gov. Sam Brownback’s allies helped find candidates for important state House and Senate primaries.
But hardwiring a nominating process in dozens of races across the country will still be harder than winning the lottery, some Republicans said.
“There’s nobody in either party that has the ability to say, ‘You can run, and you can’t,’ ” Hancock said. “That doesn’t exist.”