In his race for Congress from a suburban Chicago district, Ethan Hastert figured to benefit from terrific family connections in the Republican party. His father, Denny, once held the seat and was speaker of the House for eight years. Hastert, 31, raised more campaign money than his opponent in the recent Republican primary, state legislator Randy Hultgren, and at one point had a double-digit lead in polls. Yet he lost.
So did Elizabeth Coulson, a state legislator for 13 years who was favored to win the Republican primary for another suburban House seat outside Chicago. She lost to businessman Robert Dold, 40, who operates a pest control business and was running for office for the first time.
In still another district near Chicago, venture capitalist Joe Walsh, 48, moved back to his hometown of Barrington to run for Congress. Republican party leaders believed Walsh would finish third in the primary to two candidates better known in the district. Walsh won.
In these three primary elections on February 2, we saw something new. The conservative, anti-Washington, antispending backlash against President Obama and congressional Democrats had spread. It affected the outcome of Republican races. And this phenomenon has become a major factor in other Republican contests.
A few years ago, then-Representative J. D. Hayworth of Arizona dismissed the idea of challenging Senator John McCain from the right. McCain’s practice of cosponsoring bills with liberal Democrats infuriated conservatives, but his poll numbers in Arizona were just too strong, Hayworth told me. McCain seemed unassailable.
Not in 2010. After losing his House seat in 2006 and becoming a talk radio host, Hayworth announced his candidacy against McCain last week. Given the new political environment, McCain has been forced to take Hayworth and his conservative attacks seriously. McCain is also tilting more to the right himself. The primary is August 24.
In Kentucky, the Republican candidate anointed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and party leaders to succeed retiring Senator Jim Bunning is Secretary of State Trey Grayson. But Grayson is running no better than even against libertarian Rand Paul, an eye doctor, first time candidate, and son of Ron Paul, the Texas congressman. The primary is May 18.
And in Texas, one of Governor Rick Perry’s advantages over Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is that she serves in Washington and he doesn’t. “It’s Texas versus Washington,” Rob Johnson, Perry’s campaign manager, says gleefully. The primary is March 2.
To say this trend was unexpected by most Republican officials and the party’s campaign consultants is putting it mildly. One of the few Republicans who saw it coming is Marco Rubio, 38, the former Florida house speaker who polled in single digits initially but now leads Governor Charlie Crist in the primary to succeed Senator Mel Martinez. The vote is August 24.
“The issues are so big, so consequential, so generational that many of the rules of political engagement will not apply,” Rubio said in a speech at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. “For example, a long list of establishment endorsements will not spare you a primary.”
When Crist decided to run for the Senate last spring, he did so with the endorsement of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which ordinarily stays out of primaries. At the time, Republicans were desperate to get a popular figure like Crist to run. They offered the endorsement as an inducement. Now Rubio is using the party’s seal of approval against Crist.
Republican senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina was one of Rubio’s earliest (and few prominent) backers. “When I endorsed him, . . . the Washington establishment laughed him off,” DeMint said in introducing Rubio at CPAC. “Well, they’re not laughing now.”
The most endangered Republican senator is probably Robert Bennett of Utah, running for his fourth term. (He once said he’d serve only two terms.) Bennett faces four challengers, all claiming to be more conservative than the senator. “He’s in more trouble than McCain,” a Republican official says.
The grass-roots revolt in the Illinois primaries was all the more telling because it was a near-total surprise. Ethan Hastert’s name, rather than an asset, “actually worked against him,” says a Republican official who supported him. The Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times endorsed his opponent, Hultgren—another surprise.
For Hultgren, the key to winning was staying to the right of Hastert. “I believe we need real conservatism in Washington,” he declared. “I’m proud to call myself a real conservative.” He won, 55 percent to 45 percent. He faces Democrat Bill Foster, who won a special election after Hastert’s father resigned, in the general election on November 2.
The success of Dold in the House seat being vacated by Representative Mark Kirk “came out of nowhere,” Representative Aaron Schock of Illinois told me. Schock had endorsed the favorite, Coulson. Dold defeated Coulson, 39 percent to 30 percent, in a multiple candidate race.
Once again, the winner ran against Washington and excessive spending. Dold labeled Coulson “a Springfield insider” as a legislator and one who voted for “tax and spend” bills. As a social moderate, Dold nicely fits the district, which President Obama won with 61 percent of the vote in 2008. Kirk, by the way, won the Republican primary for the Senate seat once held by Obama.
What distinguished Walsh’s victory was the role of tea party activists. Without them, he would have had little chance of winning. After his victory—Walsh got 35 percent in a six-way race—he traveled to Nashville to speak at the National Tea Party Convention. “I ran as a tea party candidate in the primary, and I’m going to run as a tea party candidate in the general,” he said.
When Melissa Bean, the Democratic incumbent, learned that Walsh would be her opponent, she expressed relief, regarding him as the weakest of the Republicans in the primary. Her reaction was reminiscent of how pleased aides of President Carter were in 1980 when Ronald Reagan emerged as his Republican opponent. They were happy to have escaped the awesome juggernaut of a Howard Baker campaign.
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who’s been recruiting Republican candidates for the House, says Republican incumbents across the country may face tough primary races. “I’ve told a lot of Republicans, ‘Don’t think this is just an anti-Democrat year.’ There’s a movement to throw everybody out.”
But it’s worse for Democrats. “We have to face this in the primary,” McCarthy says. “Democrats have to face it in the general.”
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.