First, the problem. In 2010, Republicans failed to capture winnable Democratic Senate seats in Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado. The reason: bad candidates. In 2012, Republicans pulled a repeat, losing two, perhaps three, Democratic seats that were poised to switch parties. The reason: bad candidates.
Now, the solution (or part of it anyway). In 2012, Republicans in North Carolina used redistricting to make Democrat Larry Kissell’s House seat highly winnable. But not if Scott Keadle, a two-time loser of House races, was the candidate. So Young Guns Action Fund, an independent GOP group, spent nearly $1 million in TV/radio ads and direct mail to boost Richard Hudson, a former congressional aide. Hudson beat Keadle in the primary, then defeated Kissell, 54-46 percent, to win the seat.
The lesson here is not simply that Republicans need better Senate candidates. That’s a given. The important lesson is that yearning for top-notch candidates isn’t enough. It will take aggressive intervention in the selection process to make sure Republicans pick candidates who can win. Young Guns showed the way.
But not the only way. Once a campaign begins, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) can’t “coordinate” with super-PACs like the Club for Growth and American Crossroads to reach agreement on the best candidate. Beforehand, however, they can legally collaborate, along with others in the GOP orbit. With Senate races in 2014 in mind, they ought to start doing so right about now.
Their goal should be to apply the rule promoted by the late National Review editor, William F. Buckley Jr.—that is, support the most conservative Republican candidate who can win. And to avoid brutal primary fights, they should weed out the candidates with the least chance of winning.
Yes, this is a tricky business. It’s often not obvious who is the most electable conservative. And it won’t always be possible to clear the path for a single, agreed-upon candidate and avert a destructive primary campaign that weakens the winner and aids the Democratic candidate.
But it would surely have been worth the effort to try to single out a Republican candidate for the Senate in Wisconsin this year. What actually happened was a textbook example of how to lose an election. Former governor Tommy Thompson won a bitter primary that depleted his campaign funds. He lost to Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a lavishly funded archliberal who had run unopposed in her primary.
Another example of Republican self-destructiveness occurred in Missouri. Democrats spent more than $2 million in the GOP primary to boost Todd Akin. He was the easiest candidate for embattled Democratic senator Claire McCaskill to beat even before he uttered the infamous words “legitimate rape.”
The Club for Growth preferred Sarah Steelman, while Republicans in Washington felt businessman John Brunner would be the strongest candidate. By not uniting behind one or the other—and running weeks of ads, both negative and positive—Republicans allowed Akin to emerge. They let Democrats decide the Republican primary and reelect McCaskill.
In 2010, the primaries in Nevada and Delaware cried out for intervention. The NRSC wasn’t about to take them on, after its blunder in endorsing Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio in the Florida Senate primary. But what if conservative PACs had lined up behind Sue Lowden, the ex-state GOP chair? She might have ousted Majority Leader Harry Reid. The nominee, Sharron Angle, never had a prayer.
As luck would have it, Republicans have yet another opportunity to capture the Senate in 2014, or at least come close. But they’ll blow it again unless cooler Republican heads decide to intervene and deliver conservative candidates who can be elected.
Backing a moderate might make sense in a few states, but not in the five red states with Democratic senators up in 2014. All five are vulnerable: Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Tim Johnson in South Dakota, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina. And if 2014 turns out to be a prosperous year for Republicans, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen will be beatable in New Hampshire (red in 2010, blue in 2012).
When one looks at the condition of the Democratic party in these red states, there are all the more grounds for optimism. With the Clintons gone, the party in Arkansas is disintegrating. In North Carolina, Republicans just won the governorship, a veto-proof legislature, and three House seats (with a fourth possibly headed to a recount). In Louisiana, every statewide elected official is a Republican—except Landrieu.
But even in red states, having an “R” by a candidate’s name on the ballot won’t guarantee election. Good candidates are required. The NRSC knows this, but has to work mainly behind the scenes. Super-PACs don’t, and they may be ready to step forward in 2014.
Steven Law, the president of the most influential of the super-PACs, American Crossroads, is considering how to get involved in choosing candidates. Law says he favors a “holistic” approach, starting with vetting potential candidates to find the one who best meets the Buckley rule, then talking to other independent-expenditure PACs and Republicans about supporting the candidate jointly in the primary.
This won’t work everywhere. More than one Republican officeholder with conservative credentials is likely to run in North Carolina. The Club for Growth may insist on backing candidates whose electability is questioned by other Republicans. In that event, American Crossroads—or a subsidiary with less of an establishment tinge—might fund primary candidates of their own liking. Though primary fights can be invigorating, they usually aren’t. But they are sometimes necessary
Republicans should never forget 2010 and 2012. Had they acted wisely, they might control the Senate today. Harry Reid would be gone and President Obama contained. Now there’s a way to expunge the memory of two bad Senate outcomes. Prevent a third.