Commentary Magazine


Topic: primaries

Candidates, Not Process, Is the Key for GOP

A year ago, their defeat in the presidential election set off an understandable bout of introspection in many Republicans. This week’s defeat of GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race has set off another round of arguments about how the party can avoid the same fate in the future. However, some of the advice Republicans are getting is not likely to help them much. In particular, the recriminations about Cuccinelli’s campaign and the way he won his party’s nomination ignore the real problems of the GOP both in Virginia and elsewhere. One example of this is the New York Times’s front-page story today titled “GOP Weighs Limiting Clout of Right Wing.” The conceit of the story is that Cuccinelli’s winning the Republican nod for governor was primarily due to the party’s decision to choose its candidate via a convention rather than an open primary. Since conventions are, by definition, less representative of the general public, that allows “fringe” candidates (i.e. Tea Partiers) to emerge. Establishment figures that have been tearing down Cuccinelli all year are thus cited to blame all the GOP’s woes on such “fringe” characters and their supporters dragging it down to defeat.

To say that this is an oversimplification of the matter is an understatement. As I’ve written previously, Cuccinelli’s big problem wasn’t that he was an extremist. Nor was he foisted on an unwilling Republican party by a tiny band of outliers. If Republicans are to fix what is wrong with their party, it will not be by procedural tricks to ensure that Tea Partiers don’t get nominated. Rather, it will be because they recruit and run better candidates and more professional campaigns on issues that resonate with voters. Everything else is inside baseball and more about factional score settling than advancing the cause of conservatism.

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A year ago, their defeat in the presidential election set off an understandable bout of introspection in many Republicans. This week’s defeat of GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race has set off another round of arguments about how the party can avoid the same fate in the future. However, some of the advice Republicans are getting is not likely to help them much. In particular, the recriminations about Cuccinelli’s campaign and the way he won his party’s nomination ignore the real problems of the GOP both in Virginia and elsewhere. One example of this is the New York Times’s front-page story today titled “GOP Weighs Limiting Clout of Right Wing.” The conceit of the story is that Cuccinelli’s winning the Republican nod for governor was primarily due to the party’s decision to choose its candidate via a convention rather than an open primary. Since conventions are, by definition, less representative of the general public, that allows “fringe” candidates (i.e. Tea Partiers) to emerge. Establishment figures that have been tearing down Cuccinelli all year are thus cited to blame all the GOP’s woes on such “fringe” characters and their supporters dragging it down to defeat.

To say that this is an oversimplification of the matter is an understatement. As I’ve written previously, Cuccinelli’s big problem wasn’t that he was an extremist. Nor was he foisted on an unwilling Republican party by a tiny band of outliers. If Republicans are to fix what is wrong with their party, it will not be by procedural tricks to ensure that Tea Partiers don’t get nominated. Rather, it will be because they recruit and run better candidates and more professional campaigns on issues that resonate with voters. Everything else is inside baseball and more about factional score settling than advancing the cause of conservatism.

Let’s specify that those who complain about state parties relying on conventions rather than primaries are absolutely right. The idea of reviving the proverbial smoke-filled rooms where party bosses dickered and chose candidates without bothering to gain the consent of the rank and file, let alone the voters, is absurd. It is, in general, a way for small unrepresentative groups—such as Ron Paul’s libertarian foot soldiers—to gain control of party structures that they could not obtain if they were forced to win primaries.

However, the state convention method used to pick Cuccinelli is not to blame for the ultimate Democratic victory. There’s every reason to believe the state attorney general would have beaten Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling in a Republican primary, just as he did in the convention. The problem was that Bolling and his backers feared that he would lose a GOP primary so they sought to change the rules to turn such an election into an open vote in which independents and Democrats would also have a say in the Republican candidate rather than just members of the party. In response, Cuccinelli’s people reversed the decision and sought a convention that in addition to nominating him also gave him a genuine extremist as a running mate in the form of Minister E. W. Jackson, who did hurt the Republican campaign.

But the focus on process here is beside the point. As I wrote Tuesday night, had Cuccinelli’s Tea Party allies in Congress not shut down the government on October 1, that may have allowed the country more time to focus on the ObamaCare rollout disaster, a factor that might have allowed him to do better. But, Cuccinelli’s main problem in Virginia was the same faced by the more moderate Mitt Romney: the changing demographics in a state that has shifted from red to purple, if not blue, in the last generation.

Moreover, the narrative that the Tea Party is destroying the Republicans is a flimsy structure by which to explain everything that happens throughout the country. Not all Tea Partiers are bad electoral bets. In Utah, where Mike Lee upset incumbent Republican Bob Bennett in a 2012 state convention, that move had no impact on the GOP’s ability to hold a safe seat in a deep-red state. The same is true of Ted Cruz’s Texas primary victory in 2012 over a slightly less conservative Republican. The most flagrant instances where terrible Tea Party candidates have cost the GOP Senate seats—Sharon Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware—happened when both won primaries over more electable Republicans.

Instead of grousing about conventions, Republicans need to focus on recruiting able people to run for office in the future. What Republicans need is the same thing that Democrats want: good candidates. They come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and political hues. Smart, able people will always be able to beat fringe figures if properly vetted and backed with money and organization. Any diversion from that simple truth will only lead the Republicans back to the same circular firing squad that they seem to trot out every time they lose an election. 

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GOP Ought to Trash Caucuses in 2016

The blowback from the right against the Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the 2012 election has begun with a barrage of bitter attacks from supporters of Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. But no one should be under the assumption that the critique of the report—especially its blueprint for revising the 2016 presidential nominating process—has anything to do with better representing the grass roots of the party or enhancing its chances of winning the next election.

As I mentioned earlier today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is a comprehensive attempt to assess the failings of the party and cited the article by our Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson on “How to Save the Republican Party” in the March issue of COMMENTARY. But it also recommends streamlining the nominating process and making it less likely that well organized minorities can hijack the delegate selection process in some states via undemocratic caucuses and state conventions rather than primaries. While some on the right are curiously uncomfortable with the notion of a methodical look at where the GOP fell short in 2012, some are particularly unhappy with any idea of shortening the process, reducing the number of debates or diminishing the number of states that pick their delegates in a manner that requires the fewest number of participants.

While keeping the system just the way it is makes sense if you are running a campaign that appeals primarily to a narrow ideological faction, it doesn’t make sense if the purpose of the whole exercise is to choose the Republican with the most broad-based support or the best chance of winning in November. That’s why the huffing and puffing about the RNC report, especially from the Paulbots, strikes a particularly disingenuous note.

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The blowback from the right against the Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the 2012 election has begun with a barrage of bitter attacks from supporters of Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. But no one should be under the assumption that the critique of the report—especially its blueprint for revising the 2016 presidential nominating process—has anything to do with better representing the grass roots of the party or enhancing its chances of winning the next election.

As I mentioned earlier today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is a comprehensive attempt to assess the failings of the party and cited the article by our Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson on “How to Save the Republican Party” in the March issue of COMMENTARY. But it also recommends streamlining the nominating process and making it less likely that well organized minorities can hijack the delegate selection process in some states via undemocratic caucuses and state conventions rather than primaries. While some on the right are curiously uncomfortable with the notion of a methodical look at where the GOP fell short in 2012, some are particularly unhappy with any idea of shortening the process, reducing the number of debates or diminishing the number of states that pick their delegates in a manner that requires the fewest number of participants.

While keeping the system just the way it is makes sense if you are running a campaign that appeals primarily to a narrow ideological faction, it doesn’t make sense if the purpose of the whole exercise is to choose the Republican with the most broad-based support or the best chance of winning in November. That’s why the huffing and puffing about the RNC report, especially from the Paulbots, strikes a particularly disingenuous note.

As Politico reports, the reaction from the camp of Rand Paul to the report was predictably over the top, with one of his supporters saying it meant “nuclear war with the grassroots, social conservatives and Ron Paul movement.” But this is an empty threat.

Rand Paul looks to be a far more formidable candidate and may well be able to appeal to a wider cross-section of Republicans than his extremist libertarian father Ron. But rather than showing confidence that he can parlay his filibuster-fueled celebrity into mainstream appeal, Paul’s faction appears to be worried that any nominating process that doesn’t tilt the playing field in the direction of a candidate that appeals to the base rather than the center of the party hurts them. The same goes for Santorum and others who are unhappy about the prospect of fewer states that can be won by out-organizing opponents rather than winning the votes of the most Republicans.

The willingness of some states to go on picking delegates by a process that seems to be a function of 19th and early 20th century “smoke-filled room” politics is itself an anachronism. Primaries were first championed a century ago by Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and others who sought to democratize the presidential selection process at the same time they were also seeking to end the practice of electing U.S. senators by the votes of legislatures rather than the citizens of each state.

Looking back at what happened in some of the caucus states last year, it’s easy to see why the Rough Rider and other Republicans thought this procedure should be relegated to the dustbin of history along with other practices, such as citizens having to announce their vote at the poll rather than having a secret ballot.

It’s not just that caucuses deter voter participation by their insular nature. It’s that the votes of even the people who are able to figure out how to get into each local caucus and then cast a ballot are not always respected. In several cases, those elected to participate in state conventions by caucus-goers wound up supporting candidates other than those to whom they were pledged or were even circumvented by maneuvers that allowed outliers like Ron Paul or even Santorum to win the convention delegates. That’s not only unfair but a turnoff to anyone inclined to vote in November.

The pushback against the RNC is all about the fear on the part of some in the base that a national party establishment will steal the GOP from them. Given the often-unwarranted critiques of the Tea Party heard by some party grandees and officeholders, that resentment is understandable. But changing the process to make it less of a circus in which the sideshows overshadow the serious candidates (as was often the case over the course of the numerous debates) or to maximize participation doesn’t preclude the nomination of a conservative.

Once upon a time, conservatives deplored state conventions and caucuses because they feared establishment types would use their better ground games to elect people like Gerald Ford over the more popular grass roots favorite Ronald Reagan. But now those who claim to have inherited the Reagan mantle want to skew the results to have the least representative candidate rather than one with a broad appeal.

That may serve the interests of a libertarian fringe that doesn’t have much confidence in their ability to seize control of the party even with a Rand Paul at their head, but it doesn’t make sense for the rest of the Republican Party. The RNC needs to ignore the critics and implement the report’s recommendations. While the new rules may allow Iowa to retain its traditional first-in-the-nation caucus, it is high time that unrepresentative state’s influence be cut back. Unless the goal of the 2016 GOP nominating process is to lose rather than to win the election, other caucus and state convention systems from the horse-and-buggy era of American politics ought to be trashed.

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