The Spectacle Blog

Why Aren’t There More Bob Bennetts?

By on 5.10.10 | 9:12AM

Daniel Larison is right that more Republicans deserve the Specter-Crist-Bennett treatment than get it, but he more or less answers his own question as to why this is the case. It is not easy or politically cost-free to oust entrenched incumbents in either party. Bob Bennett was made to pay for his political sins because the state convention system made it relatively easy and Utah's Republican voting habits meant that tossing him out likely won't cost the Republicans his Senate seat. Remember that Chris Cannon was also beaten under this system for supporting a single Bush administration proposal favored by other Republicans -- amnesty for illegal immigrants.

The TARP bailouts and amnesty are both unpopular with the Republican base. More Republican legislators heeded the base on amnesty than on TARP, but even so few of the outliers have been ousted by anti-amnesty primary challengers. John McCain's amnesty advocacy didn't cost him the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. But it could conceivably help cost him renomination to his own Senate seat this year. How different issues are weighted and the quality of the primary challengers also has a lot to do with whether politicians can survive defying the party faithful.

That's why I would also disagree that fiscal issues necessarily trump social issues, especially if we are talking about the Republican primary electorate rather than GOP elites. Moderate Republicans who lose their primaries tend to be vulnerable on a combination of both because that's what conservative primary challengers need to put together a winning coalition. In Ohio, George Voinovich has avoided numerous primary challenges despite his fiscal moderation because of his strong social conservatism, particularly on abortion. Jeff Flake has beat back anti-amnesty challengers because of his fiscal conservatism.

Arlen Specter may have (barely) survived his 2004 primary, but the whole reason he was in serious trouble in the first place was precisely that he was vulnerable on both social and economic issues. Specter was saved because George W. Bush and Rick Santorum insisted they needed his vote in a 51-49 Republican Senate. Many conservatives who voted for Specter in 2004 felt instant buyer's remorse once they were faced with a 55-45 Republican Senate where Specter's vote was not needed.

That, rather than the primacy of fiscal issues, was the reason the stimulus became the final nail in Specter the Republican's coffin. The conservative case for Specter in 2009 ran thus: There was no way Pat Toomey could hold Specter's seat; Specter was the only person preventing a filibuster-proof Democratic majority; Specter might be a moderate, but he was reliable enough to filibuster when it counted. As polling showed Toomey could conceivably win, as the GOP's 2010 electoral prospects improved nationwide, and Specter supported the stimulus rather than filibustering it, one by one the conservative case for his candidacy collapsed. Soon he concluded he could not win the Republican primary.

It's true that Giuliani could not have run a credible Republican presidential campaign if he was as far to the left on fiscal issues as he was on social issues. Larison is right that taxes is considered a lowest-common-denominator Republican issue in a way that abortion is not (though again, McCain won the nomination despite voting against the Bush tax cuts, something that would have been inconceivable had he also been pro-choice). But it is equally true that if Giuliani was even halfway as conservative on social issues as he was on fiscal issues, he would have stood a chance at getting more primary votes than Ron Paul. His social liberalism, particularly on abortion, was the main reason he did not.

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