While addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Thursday morning, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa..) discussed the historical significance of his primary challenge to then Sen. Arlen Specter back in 2004. The “battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party” between big spending moderates and committed conservatives that was evident in 2004 may have inspired subsequent Tea Party efforts, Toomey suggested. Despite losing out on key endorsements from leading Republican figures in 2004, Toomey believes his primary campaign created a strong foundation for conservative activism that translated into victory in 2010.
It is important to discern between principled primary challenges that can advance the cause of limited government and those that are ultimately self-defeating. Here on the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birthday it is worth recalling that his primary challenge against President Gerald Ford in 1976 set the stage for his transformative presidency in 1981. But it is also worth noting we are short of a few Republican U.S. Senate seats in places like Nevada that were winnable in 2010. It’s a delicate dance but ideological purity has to be balanced against political realities.