Have conservative primary challengers shrunk the GOP?
Hunting “RINOS” has become a favorite conservative pastime. But as the party struggles to avoid a 60-seat Democratic majority in the Senate, shutting off filibusters and meaningful debate on reams of liberal legislation, is it still a productive one? Assuming Norm Coleman’s legal fortunes— which are at this writing dire—don’t soon improve, Dem o crats will be one seat away from that magic number. Even if 2010 is otherwise a good year for Republicans, the GOP is nevertheless expected to defend 19 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 17, and Republican retirees outnumber departing Democrats 5 to 1.
While playing defense in Florida, Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Kentucky, Republicans need a few states where they can go on the offensive. One unexpected opportunity has emerged in deep-blue Connecticut, where Sen. Chris Dodd is paying the price for his role in the financial meltdown and his embarrassing 2008 presidential campaign. Former Rep. Rob Simmons appears to be the strongest challenger, having already taken the lead— within the margin of error—in at least one poll. But Simmons is no fire-breathing conservative.
His lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 55 percent, middling for just any member of Congress, astonishingly low for a Republican. What’s a conservative to do? The problem presents itself again in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Arlen Specter is standing for a sixth term. National Review once declared Specter the “worst Republican senator” and he cast a pivotal vote for President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package to remind conservative Pennsylvanians why.
Enter Club for Growth president Pat Toomey, who looks likely to challenge Specter in the Republican primary for a second time. In their 2004 matchup, it took the combined strength of President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum to shove Specter across the finish line by less than 1 percent of the vote. This time around there have been conflicting poll results, but no reputable survey has found Specter attracting the support of more than a third of Republicans. Yet the incumbent does much better with independents and Democrats, suggesting he would still be formidable in November if his candidacy can make it that far.
The dilemma has prompted a new round of questions about conservative primary challengers in general. Outfits like Toomey’s Club for Growth have never been popular with liberal Republicans, who want the freedom to raise taxes and prefer pale pastels to bold colors. But even now some complain they are hurting the party. Former Federal Elections Commission chairman Bradley Smith charged that “few have done more to run northeastern moderates out of the party or worked harder to shrink the party’s base.” Blogger and American Conservative columnist Daniel Larison calls them the “Club for Democratic Growth.”
Are conservative parasites killing their Republican host? Let’s begin with one of the biggest showdowns in history between a more moderate GOP incumbent and a conservative challenger: the 1976 contest between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Ford was an unelected president, Reagan a 65-yearold former California governor and Hollywood actor.
Ford eventually prevailed in the drawn-out primary struggle, but ended up making concessions on the Repub lican platform and replacing Nelson Rockefeller on the national ticket. He was also upstaged by Reagan at the Republican National Convention.
Ford went on to lose the general election to Jimmy Carter by a narrow margin. You can find political analysts who contend that Reagan’s primary challenge, rather than pardons or Poland, hurt Ford in November. Ford himself was said to believe some version of this. You’ll search for a long time for someone who will claim that Carter’s presidency hurt the Republican Party. Reagan opened a three-election, 40-plus state winning streak for the GOP in 1980. In 1978, conservative activist Jeffrey Bell upset four-term liberal Republican Sen. Clifford Case in the New Jersey primary. Bell lost that November to former New York Knicks star Bill Bradley, an election Case could conceivably have won. But moderate-to- liberal Republicans Millicent Fenwick, Christine Todd Whitman, Dick Zimmer, Bob Franks, and Tom Kean Jr. all subsequently lost Senate races in New Jersey. In Massachusetts the same year as the Case- Bell primary, liberal Republican Sen. Edward Brooke bested conservative primary challenger Avi Nelson and still lost the general anyway.
Two years later, conservative Alfonse D’Amato toppled four-term liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits in New York during the GOP primary and went on to victory in November. D’Amato’s general-election prospects were aided by the fact that Javits remained on the ballot as the Liberal Party nominee, taking 11 percent of the vote and splitting the liberal base. But Reagan also carried New York in 1980. D’Amato managed to retain his Senate seat in two very difficult election cycles, 1986 and 1992 , before being “Schumed” out of office by Democrat Chuck Schumer in 1998.
But the biggest threat to Rockefeller Republicans has never been conservative primary challengers. Only twice in 30 years (1978 and 2008) has more than one incumbent GOP senator faced a serious intra-party challenge. The principal reason RINOs have become an endangered species is the Democratic tilt of the areas moderate to liberal Republicans tend to represent. The more conservative Republican Party of D’Amato and Bell didn’t send as many people to Congress from places like Massachusetts as did the party of Javits and Case. But during the 1980s and ’90s, at least, the more ideologically cohesive GOP won more elections overall.
HAS THIS CHANGED now that groups like the Club for Growth systematically promote conservative primary challengers, perhaps pushing the GOP’s rightward movement to the point of diminishing returns? Doubtful. Despite the races that receive the most attention, the Club spends far more money trying to elect Republicans than defeat them. The Club has helped oust exactly two Republican incumbents: Joe Schwarz in Michigan, whose challenger won in November but was defeated in a reelection bid; and Wayne Gilchrest in Maryland, whose challenger lost the general election.
Democrats won the Gilchrest seat by 916 votes only after the vanquished incumbent crossed party lines and endorsed against the Republican nominee, state Sen. Andy Harris. The Democrats picked up the Schwarz seat in a similar fashion: Schwarz endorsed and campaigned for the Democratic challenger to freshman Rep. Tim Walberg, who had bested him in the 2006 primary. Walberg lost by two points.
Neither district is lost to Republicans forever; nor is the Idaho seat held for one term by Club-backed Rep. Bill Sali, who lost to Blue Dog Democrat Walt Minnick in 2008.
In recent Senate races, Specter beat back a Club-supported primary challenge from Toomey and won in November despite conservative defections to Constitution Party candidate Jim Clymer.
In 2006, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee similarly repelled Club-endorsed Steve Laffey and lost the general election even though exit polls showed him carrying 94 percent of self-described Republicans. In New Mexico’s open Senate seat in 2008, the Club favored conservative Rep. Steve Pearce over fellow Rep. Heather Wilson. Pearce got pasted in November, but Wilson didn’t poll any better and barely hung on to her own House seat in 2006 by just 861 votes.
The overall track record: the Club for Growth hasn’t always won tough elections, but it has played a role in very few Republican losses. From a strictly electoral perspective, conservatives may not be the right candidates for every race but their participation in GOP primaries has pushed the party to the right on taxes, guns, abortion, and national security. Soon the Democrats will get their own taste of competitive primary politics. Starting in 2010, the Accountability NOW political action committee will support challengers to insufficiently liberal incumbent Democrats. The project is strongly backed by the netroots, including blogger Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake and Glenn Greenwald of Salon, which played a role in Ned Lamont’s 2006 primary challenge to Joe Lieberman. Political parties may need every seat they can get. Movements that are committed to ideas and policies often have a higher standard.