Commentary Magazine


Focus on Ideas, Not Just the Candidates

Some on the right are unhappy about the news that a group of major Republican donors led by former Bush strategist Karl Rove is organizing an effort called the Conservative Victory Project to fund mainstream candidates running against extremists in GOP primaries. According to Politico, leaders of the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund weren’t impressed by the prospect of party heavy-hitters parachuting into local races and preventing right-wing outliers from losing winnable elections against vulnerable Democrats:

Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller essentially responded by pointing to the scoreboard in recent primaries in which conservative insurgents have prevailed and emerged as influential GOP leaders.

“They are welcome to support the likes of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist and David Dewhurst,” Keller said of the new Crossroads group. “We will continue to proudly support the likes of Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.”

He has a point. It’s easy to fault Tea Partiers for foisting on the GOP crackpot senatorial candidates like Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle–whose victories over more moderate candidates in Republican primaries cost the party all-but-certain wins in the last two election cycles. More to the point, Akin’s astoundingly stupid remarks about rape and abortion not only led to his defeat but helped sink Richard Mourdock in Indiana and tarnished the brand of the party everywhere. But not every insurgent is a loser, and not every establishment type is likely to win. The party’s problem is not only that it is not always easy to predict who is the better candidate but also that these top-down efforts are band-aids on a broader dilemma that must be addressed. The question is not just who should be running but what does the Republican Party stand for. The Victory Project’s Steven Law defended the initiative as nothing more than an effort to do what William F. Buckley always advocated, to pick the most conservative candidate who can win to face off against Democrats.

If, the group can in some way help prevent people like Akin, O’Donnell or Angle from winning primaries they will be doing the Republicans a service. But there is also good reason to be skeptical about the process by which this determination will be made. If this amounts to an incumbency protection plan it will only infuriate grass roots activists who will rightly resent the effort. It’s also true that sometimes, as was the case with people like Toomey and Rubio, it is not just that the insurgents are more faithful proponents of conservative ideas than their moderate rivals, but that they are also better candidates. Moreover, the prospect of national groups being able to override local sentiment in the name of victory is doubtful, as is the assumption that throwing more money at a race can determine the outcome.

The test case appears to be the upcoming 2014 race to pick a successor to retiring Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. This ought to be a great chance for a Republican pick-up but if, as appears likely, Representative Steve King wins the GOP nomination, the party may be setting itself up for another Tea Party disaster that leads to victory for the Democrats. King has a long record of incendiary remarks that his conservative fans don’t care about but which could sink him in a statewide general election. But persuading Iowa Republicans to do as Rove tells them to do will require more than an investment in campaign funds in the primary. As the party discovered to its sorrow last November, GOP moderates are also capable of losing Senate elections that seemed like sure bets.

What Republicans need is not so much a new civil war in which moderates wage war on Tea Partiers but a focus on ideas that will help the party regain its footing and confidence. If the GOP allows itself to become a loose collection of opportunists who are only capable of offering the public a faint echo of Democratic promises minus 10 or 15 percent for the sake of fiscal sense, all they will have done is to recreate the old pre-Ronald Reagan and Republican Revolution GOP that was only fit to be a polite minority. But by the same token, it cannot allow itself to be painted as only being the party of austerity. In 2014, the GOP must offer a positive vision of economic growth and defense of freedom abroad along with a sensible advocacy of entitlement reform that will save the country from impending fiscal doom.

If it can do that, then the candidates will sort themselves out. Republican winners come in all shapes and sizes — moderates as well as Tea Partiers. So do losers. But without the ideas that can swing the nation back from President Obama’s push for a revival of big government liberalism, it won’t matter whom the big donors or the activists are trying to nominate. 

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