Last week, Club for Growth President Pat Toomey opened the door to challenging Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in the 2010 Republican primary. 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.
Bush and Santorum are now both out of office, though the latter is thought to be weighing his 2010 endorsement options carefully. After his pivotal vote for the $787 billion stimulus package, 66 percent of Keystone State Republicans want to retire Specter as well. But Republicans find themselves in a much more precarious position than they did five years ago: they barely cling to enough Senate seats to successfully mount filibusters and are in dire need of every vote they can get in that chamber.
The argument that this recommends leniency for Specter rests on three assumptions: that Specter would likely hold the Senate seat in a general election; that Toomey would likely lose in November; and that Specter would make himself particularly useful as the Republicans' 41st Senate vote. The first and third assumptions look awfully shaky. The second is much more plausible but it's a long way until 2010.
Yet the prospect of a renewed Specter-Toomey rivalry raises the question of how productive conservative primary challenges have been for the Republican Party. Liberals in both parties have long complained about the right's alleged purge of sensible Eisenhower Republicans from the GOP. Now even some conservatives have gotten into the act, specifically criticizing outfits like Toomey's Club for 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-year-old former California governor and Hollywood actor. Ford eventually prevailed in the drawn-out primary struggle, but ended up making concessions on the Republican 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. Maybe Case would have won. But moderate-to-liberal Republicans Millicent Fenwick, Christine Todd Whitman, Dick Zimmer, Bob Franks, and Tom Keane Jr. all subsequently lost Senate races in New Jersey, so that is far from certain. In Massachusetts the same year as the Case-Bell primary, liberal Republican Sen. Edward Brooke defeated 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.
Nevertheless, the biggest threat to Rockfeller Republicans has never been conservative primary challengers. Only twice in thirty 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 are trying to systematically promote conservative primary challengers, perhaps pushing the GOP's rightward movement to the point of diminishing returns? The record is mixed. For all the criticism of the Club's "RINO-hunting," the tax-cutting group has bumped off exactly two Republican congressional incumbents: Joe Schwarz of Michigan in 2006 and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland in 2008. Republicans lost the Gilchrest seat and held the Schwarz seat in 2006 but not 2008.
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. Democrats picked up the Schwarz seat in a similar fashion: Schwarz endorsed and campaigned for the Democratic challenger to freshman Congressman 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 seat held for one term by Club-backed Congressman 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, Lincoln Chafee similarly repelled Club-endorsed Steve Laffey and lost the general election despite winning 94 percent of self-described Republicans. In New Mexico's open Senate seat in 2008, the Club favored conservative Congressman 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.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Club for Growth has seen its best results when Republicans have done well across the board -- 17 of 19 Club-backed Republican congressional candidates won in 2002, plus their preferred South Carolina gubernatorial candidate, Mark Sanford. When the GOP does poorly, the Club's track record is more mixed, such as 9 general election winners and 10 losers in 2008.
If Republicans, conservative or otherwise, had primaried Montana Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006 or Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008, the GOP would have been more likely to hold those seats. In other cases -- like Gilchrest's in Maryland -- a successful primary challenge made Republicans less likely to win in November. None of this solves the Pennsylvania GOP's Specter-Toomey dilemma. But it does suggest that the Republican Party's problems can't be pinned on fratricidal conservative primary challengers.
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