High stakes in the GOP pri­maries

Knock­ing off Repub­li­can Se­nate in­cum­bents could pre­serve Obama’s agenda

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By David A. Keene

As the spring pri­maries ap­proach, Repub­li­can vot­ers in dozens of states and con­gres­sional dis­tricts are go­ing to be asked to choose be­tween in­cum­bent se­na­tors and con­gress­men and their chal­lengers. The stakes in those con­tests are far higher than most re­al­ize. In some in­stances, these will be chal­lengers who com­men­ta­tors will dub “Tea Party” can­di­dates and in other races, they will be “es­tab­lish­ment” chal­lengers to more con­ser­va­tive or mod­er­ate in­cum­bents.

Few in­cum­bents are per­fect. Al­most all have cast a vote or two or even more that con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists haven’t liked and some seem al­most tone-deaf when the men and women whose votes they need to keep their jobs get on them for those votes. The politi­cians who come to Wash­ing­ton to straighten things out too of­ten end up try­ing to con­vince the vot­ers back home that things are just fine there. Vot­ers end up frus­trated, an­gry and fi­nally some of them de­cide to look else­where for rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

As a gen­eral propo­si­tion, pri­mary con­tests tend to pro­duce gen­eral elec­tion can­di­dates who are stronger than they would have been ab­sent such a con­test. A can­di­date who can­not con­vince pri­mary vot­ers that he would make a bet­ter se­na­tor or con­gress­man than other con­tenders usu­ally won’t. Pri­mary con­tests tend to pro­duce bet­ter can­di­dates. This is es­pe­cially true in con­tests in­volv­ing open seats.

In races pit­ting a chal­lenger against an in­cum­bent of the same party, how­ever, this isn’t al­ways the case. These chal­lenges re­quire the can­di­date not just to demon­strate that he would be a great gen­eral elec­tion can­di­date, but that the in­cum­bent is so bad that he should be fired. Such cam­paigns can be de­struc­tive as mem­bers of the same party square off in a vir­tual blood feud that opens wounds that can­not be patched up in time for the gen­eral elec­tion.

Con­sider the folks at­tracted to a chal­lenger who has run a cam­paign at­tack­ing the in­cum­bent as a “sell-out,” cor­rupt, out of touch, and more in­ter­ested in pleas­ing spe­cial in­ter­ests and party bosses than in the val­ues of the vot­ers he de­pends on for the job. When it’s all over and the in­cum­bent wins, it is dif­fi­cult to get these folks to rally or even vote in the gen­eral elec­tion. Some might even aban­don their party in the gen­eral elec­tion to pun­ish the pri­mary win­ner. If the in­cum­bent loses, his sup­port­ers are faced with a sim­i­lar prob­lem; the can­di­date they truly be­lieved in has had his ca­reer de­stroyed by a chal­lenger now seek­ing their sup­port.

It was the recog­ni­tion of this dan­ger that mo­ti­vated Ron­ald Rea­gan even as he was chal­leng­ing an in­cum­bent Repub­li­can pres­i­dent in 1976 to re­mind fel­low Repub­li­cans of what he dubbed “The Eleventh Com­mand­ment,” which urged Repub­li­cans to avoid at­tack­ing each other. Even though he pulled some of his punches in ob­ser­va­tion of the “Eleventh Com­mand­ment,” when Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford later fell to Jimmy Carter in that year’s gen­eral elec­tion, many Ford peo­ple un­fairly blamed Rea­gan.

In the end, such pri­maries in dis­tricts and states that could go ei­ther way in the gen­eral elec­tion can give the op­po­si­tion party an open­ing that it might not oth­er­wise have had. This is not al­ways the case, of course, be­cause some such pri­maries are run in states where ei­ther win­ner can hold the seat against any or at least most op­po­nents. Thus, in 2010 when Utah’s Mike Lee took on and ul­ti­mately van­quished Sen. Bob Ben­nett, there was lit­tle rea­son for any­one to fear the loss of the Se­nate seat. Utah is a heav­ily Repub­li­can state and the win­ner would be the next se­na­tor. An in­cum­bent Repub­li­can in such a state or in a safe con­gres­sional district who is out of touch could be chal­lenged with­out risk­ing loss of the seat it­self.

In­cum­bent elected of­fi­cials and their sup­port­ers of­ten ab­surdly talk as if vot­ers have an obli­ga­tion to sup­port them re­gard­less of their vot­ing record or at­ti­tude. No pri­mary voter has any­thing ap­proach­ing an “obli­ga­tion” to sup­port ev­ery in­cum­bent. It’s the can­di­date’s “obli­ga­tion” to run a cam­paign and com­pile a record de­serv­ing of voter sup­port, but pri­mary vot­ers should con­sider the big­ger pic­ture.

Some Se­nate chal­lengers this year, how­ever, could win in the pri­mary, but lose seats in the gen­eral elec­tion that the GOP might oth­er­wise hold. That wouldn’t mat­ter much if the Repub­li­cans had no chance of re­gain­ing con­trol of the Se­nate or if do­ing so would make no dif­fer­ence in terms of pol­icy or the 2016 elec­tion. In a year in which the an­a­lysts to­day are say­ing Repub­li­cans have a bet­ter than even chance of pick­ing up the Se­nate, the GOP can ill af­ford to lose any of the seats it now holds. In fact, un­der such cir­cum­stances, a pri­mary voter must think of the con­se­quences of open­ing the door to the pos­si­bil­ity that his vote could help the Democrats hold their ma­jor­ity and en­able Pres­i­dent Obama for the next two years.

Un­der such cir­cum­stances, vot­ers need to weigh care­fully whether they want to go with a risky chal­lenger over an in­cum­bent who may be less than per­fect, but far bet­ter than any Demo­crat. If the out­come of a con­tested pri­mary won’t make a dif­fer­ence, that’s one thing, but if it could, that’s some­thing very dif­fer­ent.

If the fall elec­tions are as im­por­tant as many be­lieve this year, and if the coun­try is in as bad shape as some fear, it be­comes very dan­ger­ous to al­low a de­sire for the per­fect to de­stroy the good.

A pri­mary voter in, say, Ken­tucky should keep this in mind in de­cid­ing whether to vote for Se­nate Repub­li­can Leader Mitch McCon­nell or his pri­mary op­po­nent. Ken­tucky is not a safe state for Repub­li­cans and it is pos­si­ble that by de­feat­ing Mr. McCon­nell there, Ken­tucky vot­ers could end up with a Demo­cratic se­na­tor. Then Democrats could re­tain con­trol of the Se­nate and Mr. Obama could have two more years to fun­da­men­tally al­ter the Amer­ica those very vot­ers want to pre­serve.

High stakes? You bet. David A. Keene is opin­ion ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Times.

ILLUSTRATION BY ALEXAN­DER HUNTER/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

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