Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are cruising to primary victories Tuesday after fighting Tea Party challengers every inch of the way.
It’s not that their opponents are formidable. It’s just that the incumbents decided early that it was better to crush them rather than merely beat them.
That’s a stark contrast to those who have faltered this cycle and never seemed to put their hearts into the campaign action. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) dithered before deciding to run again and now faces a runoff in which he is the underdog. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) was caught by surprise and never recovered when faced by a well-funded challenger.
“The lesson of this election cycle is, if you come prepared, raise big money, have a great team and communicate a lot with your constituents, you shouldn’t have a lot to worry about,” said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director who is helping some establishment groups involved in primaries this election cycle.
Neither Graham nor Cantor is beloved by grassroots conservatives, but they ran textbook campaigns to stifle their challengers. Each started early to beef up local connections, raised huge sums and didn’t let up against weak challengers. Graham has blanketed the state in ads touting his conservative stances, while Cantor has eviscerated his Tea Party opponent with attack ads.
Graham raised and spent more than $9 million on his race, heading home early and often. He was in touch with all facets of South Carolina’s GOP base and worked hard to scare off potentially tough opponents. His grit mirrors that of Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Reps. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas) earlier this cycle, who also beat back Tea Party challengers.
Unlike other Republicans though, Graham refused to move to the right ahead of the primary, embracing immigration reform, even as he was facing a political threat. Instead, he emphasized his conservative credentials on other issues, issuing full-throated attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy and introducing a bill to ban late-term abortions in the Senate.
Cantor has exemplified other aspects of an aggressive incumbent campaign: Run right and tear the opponent apart.
The House majority leader has spent nearly $1 million on his primary race, much of it on attack ads like one calling Tea Party candidate David Brat (R) a “liberal college professor” for serving on an economic advisory board for then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D). Cantor’s mailers have touted his opposition to “amnesty,” even though Cantor has sought to portray himself as a deal-maker on immigration in Washington, D.C.
The efforts from both men likely to cruise to victory Tuesday night show how hard it is to beat incumbents running quality campaigns.
“Some candidates use [the advantages of incumbency] better than others,” said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller, whose group targeted Hall and Cochran, and made early signals it would target Graham. “But it’s incredibly difficult to beat an incumbent — it always has been and always will be.”
Unlike the spirited Graham and Cantor, Cochran and Hall both got off to sluggish starts. Like ex-Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), whose 2012 primary loss turned “getting Lugared” into a cautionary phrase among establishment Republicans, they didn’t recognize the primary threat until it was too late.
The now former senator says Republicans have since learned a lesson from his race.
“There is a difference. In 2012, I suspect our campaign was not really prepared to be a national campaign,” Lugar told The Hill. “There was a feeling on behalf of many Republicans this campaign that they were going to engage in much more negative politics, define the opposition early on, and were not reticent at all to make very tough allegations about their opponents.”
Lackluster campaigns from candidates who’ve “gone Washington” aren’t just a Republican scourge — Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) lost for a similar reason in 2012.
But despite dire warnings from Republican strategists, Lugar isn’t the last Republican to be caught flatfooted.
Cochran, 76, didn’t decide to run for reelection until early December, began the campaign with a near-empty bank account and had spent more time in Washington, D.C., than Mississippi in recent years. He’s now facing a tough runoff campaign against Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who finished first in the June 3 primary. Many expect Cochran will lose the runoff.
Last month, the 91-year-old Hall was surprised by former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe’s (R) eleventh-hour entry into the race, and was outspent in the race, losing in the runoff.
“One of the extremely valuable, must-follow lessons is you have to adapt and run a modern campaign,” said NRSC Communications Director Brad Dayspring, a former Cantor aide. “Doing things the same old way in the current environment and with the current electorate isn’t going to cut it anymore.”