One of the great clichés of literature is Leo Tolstoy’s assertion in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike but all unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. The same thing could be said of political candidates. All good candidates, be they conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, have many of the same personal qualities that make for effective retail politics in terms of personal appeal and even intelligence (though that appears at times to be optional rather than a requirement). But bad candidates come in all shapes and sizes.
That is a lesson that the Republican Party has learned to its regret in the last couple of election cycles and may well again in South Carolina this spring. While the months since the Democrats’ victory last November have been filled with non-stop recriminations from Republicans about the quality of their candidates as well as advice from liberals to junk conservative ideology, the idea that the Tea Party is the GOP’s main albatross is one that conservatives have stiffly and rightly resisted. That point has been reinforced by what happened last night in the Palmetto State. The decision of Republican primary voters to nominate former governor Mark Sanford to run in the special election to fill the vacancy in his old congressional district has sent a shiver down the spines of GOP operatives as they rightly fear he will lose a seat that their party shouldn’t even have to worry about.
Sanford is running on a platform of personal redemption, in which his infamous mythical hike on the Appalachian Trail while actually visiting his mistress in Argentina has actually become a rationale for forgiving souls to return him to Congress rather than a reason to vote against him. Given the overwhelming advantage that Republicans hold in the district as well as the forgiving nature of the American people, it may work. One could certainly argue that Democrats who still venerate Bill Clinton as a great president are in no position to cast stones at Sanford and that his opponent Elizabeth Colbert Busch will not be aided by a moralistic and hypocritical critique of him.
But it is just as likely that enough Republicans will be disgusted by the spectacle of Sanford’s return to electoral politics after personal disgrace that it will enable Busch to win a district that Mitt Romney carried by 18 percentage points over Barack Obama. If so, this will be one Republican defeat that wiseacres won’t be able to blame on the Tea Party, failed outreach to Hispanics or any of the other valid concerns that helped cost it control of the Senate and the White House.
The lesson here is that as unique as this story may be, it’s important to realize that the outcome of every political race in the country is the product of a host of factors that often have nothing to do with national trends or issues. It is only after the fact that pundits are able to impose a unifying narrative on such contests that allow them to fit it into an overriding concept that they claim explains everything.
While such narratives are not always misleading—there really were enough Tea Party outliers like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle to constitute a trend that explained why the GOP has lost winnable seats—they often encompass races that really have more to do with personal or local factors than subjects that provide the grist for condescending New York Times editorials about the problems of Republicans.
If Republicans are to do better in 2014 it will require a convergence of a number of factors that include some of the recommendations provided by our Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson in their article in the March issue of COMMENTARY. But the main thing they’ll need is a collection of viable candidates. The puzzling embrace of the morally burdened Sanford by some of his former constituents could provide an object lesson in just how difficult it is for a national party to field a winning slate across the nation.