This year marks the third election cycle where right-wing extremism did damage to the Republican Party and its brand. In 2010, Tea Party Senate candidates cost Republicans a shot at winning the Senate. The same was true in 2012, and the same was true on Tuesday, when Virginia voters rejected right-wing Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for the governorship.
All of this has more “establishment” Republicans scrambling to promote less radical candidates, and reengineer the nomination process to keep Tea Partiers away from the ballot. Here’s the New York Times with more on the internal effort to save the Republican Party from itself:
Several consultants quoted by the Times cite Cuccinelli as an example of what happens when state party organizations decline a primary in favor of a convention. The assumption is that Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling—Governor Bob McDonnell’s chosen succssor—would have fared well in a primary, beating Cuccinelli and leading his party to a second term in the governor’s mansion.
The problem is that this isn’t true, at all. In Virginia, for instance, early polls had Cuccinelli with a wide lead over Bolling. Indeed, in a Quinnipiac University poll released in August 2012, the attorney general led the lieutenant governor by thirty-six points, 51 percent to 15 percent. Convention or primary, Cuccinelli would have been the gubernatorial nominee. The same was true of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware—who won the primary against Rep. Mike Castle and cost Republicans a Senate seat—and Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock, who did the same against incumbent Senator Richard Lugar—winning the primary with 60 percent of the vote—and then losing to Democrat Joe Donnelly in the general election. Likewise, the infamous Todd Akin owed his nomination to Republican primary voters, who supported him against all other canddiates in the failed effort to replace Democrat Claire McCaskill.
There are others, but the point is clear: The process isn’t the problem, the people are. Primary or convention, the GOP nomination process is dominated by Tea Party and other right-wing Republicans who demand ideological purity from their elected officials. Given a large stage and a crowded field, they aren’t always successful—hence the nomination of Mitt Romney. But they can pull the entire conversation to the right, and in the process, give fodder to Democrats eager to paint their opponents as outside the mainstream.
Absent a return to the smoke-filled rooms of yore—where the money men of the GOP would choose a candidate and foist them on the base—it’s not clear that there’s a fix for this problem. The Republican grassroots is a homogenous coalition of right-wing whites and conservative evangelicals. As long as that’s true, candidates will have to appeal to their sensibilities. And at least some of the time, this will yield weak nominees who can’t win.