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06.08.10

The GOP Is Blowing It

Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, and Sharron Angle won their primaries last night—but now they face uphill general election fights. Peter Beinart on how the GOP's fetish for ideological purity is hurting their chances of winning elections.

For the Republican Party, Tuesday's primaries contain good news and bad news. The good news: Republicans are angry—angry at Barack Obama, angry at the national debt, even angry at some of the leaders of their own party. Anger is a good motivator, and in midterm elections, where turnout is small, a little motivation goes a long way. The bad news: Republicans are not hungry. They're not willing to submerge their anger for the sake of winning elections. They either don't think they need to compromise their ideological purity to beat Democrats this fall or they don't care. In either case, they may be blowing their shot at a midterm landslide.

Angle is the perfect symbol of the Republican base in 2010: She's a fresh face; she enjoys grassroots support, and she wants to repeal the handiwork not just of Franklin Roosevelt, but of Theodore Roosevelt.

Exhibit A: California. The Golden State's political history is clear: centrist Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson (a moderate before he became an anti-immigrant demagogue) can win statewide elections. Right-wing Republicans cannot. The state is just too culturally liberal and too ethnically diverse. This year, GOP primary voters could have chosen a slightly dull, highly wonky, pro-choice former congressman named Tom Campbell. Campbell, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, would have led incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer by seven points in the general election. Instead, they chose former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who opposes the right to abortion, can't decide if global warming is real, won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, and according to the Times poll, trails Boxer by the same margin Campbell leads her. Fiorina didn't win the GOP Senate primary only because she is more conservative; she also bought it with her vast personal wealth. But her combination of conservatism and inexperience gives Boxer a chance to sneak back into office.

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Exhibit B: Nevada, where everyone agrees that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is extremely vulnerable. But perhaps not quite vulnerable enough to lose to Sharron Angle, a woman who wants to abolish social security, the department of education and the income tax. Reid did his best to make Angle his opponent, spending heavily to undermine the more moderate GOP frontrunner, Sue Lowden. It seems to have worked. Angle is the perfect symbol of the Republican base in 2010: She's a fresh face; she enjoys grassroots support, and she wants to repeal the handiwork not just of Franklin Roosevelt, but of Theodore Roosevelt.

Successful parties motivate their activists, but harness them as well. They convince them that it is so important to retake power that it's worth supporting ideologically impure candidates who have the best chance to win. That's not happening in today's Republican Party. The GOP has not been in the political wilderness long enough to make those compromises; it's not in a pragmatic frame of mind. Republican activists are desperate to show America how angry they are; they're less desperate to win elections. And on both counts, they may get their wish.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.