Republican primary theme: Beating incumbents is difficult

Beating incumbents is difficult.

That is real lesson that can be taken from the Republican Senate primary election in Kentucky pitting Minority Leader Mitch McConnell against businessman Matt Bevins. There is a reason why incumbents who choose to run for reelection overwhelmingly get reelected.

Challenger Bevins started strong and looked like a formidable opponent, but a primary opponent typically is cut off from local political party resources due to long-held friendships and connections with the incumbent. This necessitates spending resources to create an entire grassroots network from whole cloth. Even more significantly, the incumbent has a dramatic advantage in issue knowledge, local media contacts and relationships and the rhythms of the political process. This advantage often is used to make an opponent look foolish or unprepared for the big stage. And most important, mainstream K Street Republican incumbents have the monetary advantage that allows them to frame challengers in a negative light so stark that not even their mothers would vote for them.

To win, the primary challenger needs to run a flawless race, and even then, unless the incumbent has made fatal errors, that might not be enough to win.

It is highly likely that political columnists and corporate Republican mouthpieces are crowing already about the defeats of Tea Party candidates. They will be declaring that the Tea Party is dead, and that these elections show that the base supports the current leadership team.

However, these pundits miss the critical point: Beating McConnell in a primary was always a long shot.

To get a real plumb line of where the Republican base is, you need to look at open seats in Republican-leaning states. Nebraska provides a great example. Ben Sasse winning the nomination against the establishment's handpicked choice is a powerful testimony to the Tea Party's continuing power.

The upcoming runoff in Texas features an extremely powerful lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst (R), fighting for his political life against a Tea Party challenger, State Sen. Dan Patrick. Additionally, in the same election, Rep. Ralph Hall (R) faces possible defeat at the hands of another Tea Party-supported candidate.

And in Mississippi, Sen. Thad Cochran (R) and seemingly all of establishment Washington are battling for Cochran's career against a conservative foe in what is probably the biggest political brawl of the spring primary season.

Those who wish to write an epitaph for the Tea Party movement based on the McConnell race miss the biggest takeaway from these primary races.

All of the incumbents who are being challenged are running as conservatives regardless of their record, using their financial advantage to shout down their opponents' proof points to the contrary.

Which forces the question: If the conservative wing of the Republican Party is dead, why do K Street Republicans pander to it when their careers are threatened? The answer is simple: It isn't.

In the end, this primary season may come down to one fact, that beating incumbents is hard. But that doesn't mean that it is futile to try, as the campaign itself forces officeholders into taking more conservative stands to get into alignment with the will of their constituents. This makes for a more conservative Congress, win or lose.

Manning (@rmanning957) is vice president of public policy and communications for Americans for Limited Government. Contact him at

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