GOP faces quandary in Senate primaries

A growing push for more establishment involvement in Republican primaries may put the party in a bind as the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) grapples with helping the best possible candidates get elected in primaries in 2014.


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It’s a catch-22 for the party: Stay out, and risk untested candidates like Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) or Richard Mourdock of Indiana prevailing in the primaries and losing winnable races; or engage early and risk the kind of grassroots backlash that divided the party in many of the 2010 Senate races.

There is a consensus among a number of state Republican Party officials and grassroots groups that backlash is all but assured if the GOP establishment gets involved to the same extent as 2010.

“There's always going to be fundamental dislike of the national party coming in to a local or a state race and saying, ‘This is who we want to pick,’” said Keli Carender, national grassroots coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.

Tea Party backlash to establishment engagement in a number of Senate primaries during the 2010 cycle is part of what cost the party some easy wins that cycle, critics say.

But the hands-off approach of the NRSC this cycle was no more helpful, as many believe it led to the nomination of untested candidates who cost the party what were initially likely wins in Missouri and Indiana.

Georgia Republican Party Executive Director Brian Keahl said the state party has a practice of staying out of primaries, to avoid complicating efforts in the general election.

“If you wind up in a primary fight and the person you didn't back wins, now you've got a candidate who might have a slightly adversarial relationship with you, and that makes the relationship between the candidate and the party potentially strained,” he said.

Keahl added that it’s unlikely that the national party could avoid the same issues, if it were to get involved at the state level.

“I think the same difficulty we have in Georgia exists at the national level. I’d really worry about the grassroots backlash,” he said.

Keahl’s warning may be particularly prescient in his home state, as Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is up for reelection in 2014, and is likely to face a primary challenge from the right.

The NRSC’s policy, like all the other policy committees, is to back its incumbents. But Carender warned that if the establishment backs an incumbent against the wishes of the grassroots, their backlash could cost the party the seat.

“If the actual constituents would like somebody new, and the national party tries to come in and prop up the incumbent, that's not going to play well at all,” she said.

“You'll see a division like hasn't been seen before” in the electorate, she added.

If voters perceive the primary as being “a coronation,” one Georgia Republican active in the state party said, they’d likely push back against what they would see as a candidate “forced upon them by ‘the establishment.’”

“I fear that the damage done by the division would potentially weaken us in November, and at the very least would cut into the margin of victory on Election Day, if not make the seat competitive,” the Republican said.

State party leaders elsewhere expressed that same concern — not only that primary involvement could sour the relationship between the party and its nominee, but also that it could complicate support in the general election.

“Everybody wants to feel that the candidate at least has a legitimate shot, that there’s a level playing field, and if that’s not the case, it’s going to be hard to close ranks after the primary,” said Wayne MacDonald, New Hampshire Republican Party chairman.

New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) is up for reelection this year, and MacDonald said that if New Hampshire Republicans have the choice of “legitimate” candidates in the 2013 primary field, the national party should stay out, to avoid alienating parts of the Republican base.

But he added that there may be a time and a place for party involvement, like in the case of Delaware’s 2010 Senate primary election.

Then, Tea-Party-backed Christine O’Donnell won the nomination and went on to lose in the general election by 17 percentage points, in part due to controversy surrounding a teenage experience she had with what she described as “witchcraft.”

“We want to get control of the Senate, to elect a Republican majority, so we need to be proactive about that,” MacDonald said.

But it’s unclear how far the Republican establishment and the NRSC can go in rooting out and supporting the most electable candidates before they’ll meet grassroots backlash. Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which played a large role in Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012, warned against any establishment involvement in primaries at all because, he said, the NRSC and the national party by its nature is incapable of choosing the “principled” conservatives he says the party needs.

“I don't think the party is capable of making that distinction,” he said. “They're always going to look at who they think will win, rather than if [the candidates] believe something.”

He cited Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen.-elect Ted Cruz as evidence that the Republican party establishment can miss the mark when looking for “electable” candidates. Both were elected with Tea Party backing.

But there’s indication that the NRSC will forge a middle ground this cycle. Newly-elected NRSC Chairman Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) has appointed Cruz as NRSC vice-chair in charge of grassroots outreach, indicating the party is likely to play in primaries, but perhaps in a more nuanced way.

Multiple Republicans active in local party politics said Cruz’s strong relationship with grassroots and Tea Party movements, which helped him surge to a surprise victory in Texas’s GOP primary, may make him the establishment’s best option to bridge the gap between the party’s establishment and grassroots.

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