Political Hay

Primary Lessons

Hope and change are well underway -- at least for a new breed of Republicans.

By 8.27.10

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After reflecting on the results of Republican primary elections for the U.S. Senate and related political happenings over recent months, the message is now clear: Barack Obama was right: It really is about hope and change.

Not the naïve "Obama Zombie" hope for a government that would keep us from having to pay for our own mortgages or for filling our own gas tanks. But rather a change toward a government that moves us toward living by our republic's founding principles.

The first step on that path, according to the newly awakened and re-energized Republican electorate, was to tell the Beltway kingmakers what they can do with their preferred candidates.

In this primary election cycle, few words were as damaging to Republican candidates as "establishment" and "insider." Ties to incumbent politicians, not least to John McCain, were poison. Also harmful was being perceived as "bipartisan," in the sense that the word has come to mean: Republicans helping pass liberal legislation while getting nothing in return.

On Tuesday, with all local ballots counted, attorney Joe Miller looked set to pull the season's biggest upset, knocking off incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska's Senate primary. By Thursday morning, the lead was down to 1,668 votes with up to 8,000 absentee ballots still to be received and counted. Even if Murkowski pulls out a victory -- but especially if she doesn't -- the result reinforces the power of Sarah Palin; she endorsed Miller, who spent a mere $200,000 on his campaign, less than one-seventh of the $1.4 million plus spent by Murkowski, who had the fourth-lowest ranking among Republican Senators in the 2009 American Conservative Union ratings. Even a pro-Miller poll paid for by the Tea Party Express showed Murkowski with a 12 point lead just 3 days before the election -- and that was much closer than any other poll. The election shows that the anti-incumbent, anti-RINO wave is as alive in Alaska as in the rest of the nation.

On May 12, 2009, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) endorsed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the Senate -- on the very the same day that Marco Rubio announced his candidacy. On April 29, 2010, Crist, most famous for his hug of Barack Obama while they campaigned for the stimulus, dropped out of the Republican primary to run as an independent.

Florida held those primaries on Tuesday. The victory of black Congressman Kendrick Meek in the Democratic primary all but seals a November win for Rubio because Crist needed Florida's black vote to win as an independent. Those voters will stick with Meek, whom the Democratic Party cannot abandon, thus sinking Crist.

More interesting is that in a state with 17% more Democrats than Republicans, 37% more Republicans than Democrats cast ballots in the primary, showing the enthusiasm of Republicans for their candidate.

And in a near-mirror of Alaska's upset, former health care executive Rick Scott defeated state Attorney General and former Congressman Bill McCollum in Florida's Republican gubernatorial primary. McCollum was the pick of the entire GOP establishment. It's partly a symptom of the anti-career-politician mood across the nation, but it didn't hurt that Scott spent $40 million of his own money in the race.

In early 2009, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the NRSC chairman, recruited former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-CT) to challenge "Countrywide Chris" Dodd.

Simmons, who had a pathetic lifetime American Conservative Union ranking of 53%, lost the primary race earlier this month to Linda McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment and distinctly a political outsider. It wasn't close, with McMahon beating Simmons by 21 points.

In late 2009, the NRSC held fund-raisers for Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson who was also endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Dick Cheney, and Rudy Giuliani. Grayson was consistently called the "establishment pick" in the Republican primary. In May, Rand Paul, Tea Party favorite and son of libertarian firebrand Ron Paul, trounced Grayson by 24 points to win the Republican nomination.

In Nevada, Sue Lowden, former state senator and former chairwoman of the state Republican Party, was also the choice of establishment Republicans and an early favorite in the June primary. However, after she raised the idea of a barter system to pay for healthcare, she became the butt of quite a few "taking a chicken to the doctor" jokes and ended up losing to Sharron Angle by 14 points.

In the only race in which an incumbent Republican senator was upset by a GOP challenger, Utah's Bob Bennett finished third in that state's Republican Convention in May and didn't even get to the primary election. One of Bennett's biggest sins was co-sponsoring a universal health insurance plan, including an individual mandate to buy insurance, with liberal Democrat Ron Wyden (D-OR.)

And in Colorado, Republican Jane Norton was repeatedly pilloried (somewhat unfairly in my view) as an establishment candidate and likely RINO because her friend John McCain encouraged her to run. It didn't help Norton's case that in August 2009, the NRSC was found to have registered and paid for Internet domain names relating to a Norton candidacy, which hadn't even been announced.

Local bloggers chastised the NRSC, with Ben DeGrow arguing, "The NRSC has no business coming into this race so early in the process to endorse anyone." (Much the same argument was heard in Florida.)

Another Colorado Tea Party favorite, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, beat Mrs. Norton by 3% after her desperate last-ditch campaigning with John McCain at events around the state that drew remarkably little attendance.

In each of these races, the "establishment" candidate lost, many by wide margins, except for Crist who dropped out to avoid that particular fate.

Think about some of the common descriptions for each of these candidates:

Lisa Murkowski: RINO who opposes repeal of ObamaCare.
Rick Scott: He's anything but a former Congressman.
Charlie Crist: Pro-"stimulus" Obama-hugger.
Rob Simmons: Moderate (used as a pejorative).
Trey Grayson: Establishment candidate.
Sue Lowden: Former state GOP chair & chicken trader/
Bob Bennett: Bipartisan RINO
Jane Norton: Friend of John McCain (Did I mention John McCain?).

What do these rejections have in common? A denunciation of what the Republican Party stood for during the George W. Bush years. A rejection of "moderation" or "bipartisanship," which are nothing but code words for a spineless and self-serving desire to "go along to get along." A rejection of an oxymoronic "conservative" form of big government.

What do the winners have in common? Short or non-existent prior careers in government (with the exception of Marco Rubio), a conspicuous lack of endorsements from the NRSC or senior Republican leadership, and some rookie mistakes which, rather than turning off the voters, seemed to endear the candidates to the people as reminders that they are the closest thing we've seen in some years to true citizen legislators focused on returning the nation to something which Madison and Jefferson would recognize. But perhaps the most important thing the winners have in common was a convincing message of principle rather than just politics or party. It's also worth re-emphasizing that both losing incumbent Senators (Bennett and Murkowski) supported some sort of government-run health care plan.

Voters have recognized that switching from one party's idea of using big government to control our lives to the other party's idea of that same plan is not change and offers no hope.

Republican primary voters screamed that it's time for real hope and change. Or, more precisely, we can't simply hope for change; we must create it by electing candidates whose views and principles we understand and recognize as reflections of our nation's early self-reliant spirit. The time for blank slates, for mindless mantras ("Yes, we can!"), and blaming everything that's going wrong on the last guy to sit in the chair is now, mercifully, a historical error worthy of analysis only in order to prevent its repetition.

But for 2010, the results of Republican primary contests represent the awakening of a sleeping giant, a giant that Democrats will call a hopeful figment of Republican imaginations until November 2 when his foot comes down on their heads with a crushing thud of real change. Now that's something to hope for.

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.