Commentary Magazine


Topic: state conventions

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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