As the spring primaries approach, Republican voters in dozens of states and congressional districts are going to be asked to choose between incumbent senators and congressmen and their challengers. The stakes in those contests are far higher than most realize. In some instances, these will be challengers who commentators will dub “Tea Party” candidates and in other races, they will be “establishment” challengers to more conservative or moderate incumbents.
Few incumbents are perfect. Almost all have cast a vote or two or even more that conservative activists haven’t liked and some seem almost tone-deaf when the men and women whose votes they need to keep their jobs get on them for those votes. The politicians who come to Washington to straighten things out too often end up trying to convince the voters back home that things are just fine there. Voters end up frustrated, angry and finally some of them decide to look elsewhere for representation.
As a general proposition, primary contests tend to produce general election candidates who are stronger than they would have been absent such a contest. A candidate who cannot convince primary voters that he would make a better senator or congressman than other contenders usually won’t. Primary contests tend to produce better candidates. This is especially true in contests involving open seats.
In races pitting a challenger against an incumbent of the same party, however, this isn’t always the case. These challenges require the candidate not just to demonstrate that he would be a great general election candidate, but that the incumbent is so bad that he should be fired. Such campaigns can be destructive as members of the same party square off in a virtual blood feud that opens wounds that cannot be patched up in time for the general election.
Consider the folks attracted to a challenger who has run a campaign attacking the incumbent as a “sell-out,” corrupt, out of touch, and more interested in pleasing special interests and party bosses than in the values of the voters he depends on for the job. When it’s all over and the incumbent wins, it is difficult to get these folks to rally or even vote in the general election. Some might even abandon their party in the general election to punish the primary winner. If the incumbent loses, his supporters are faced with a similar problem; the candidate they truly believed in has had his career destroyed by a challenger now seeking their support.
It was the recognition of this danger that motivated Ronald Reagan even as he was challenging an incumbent Republican president in 1976 to remind fellow Republicans of what he dubbed “The Eleventh Commandment,” which urged Republicans to avoid attacking each other. Even though he pulled some of his punches in observation of the “Eleventh Commandment,” when President Gerald Ford later fell to Jimmy Carter in that year’s general election, many Ford people unfairly blamed Reagan.
In the end, such primaries in districts and states that could go either way in the general election can give the opposition party an opening that it might not otherwise have had. This is not always the case, of course, because some such primaries are run in states where either winner can hold the seat against any or at least most opponents. Thus, in 2010 when Utah’s Mike Lee took on and ultimately vanquished Sen. Bob Bennett, there was little reason for anyone to fear the loss of the Senate seat. Utah is a heavily Republican state and the winner would be the next senator. An incumbent Republican in such a state or in a safe congressional district who is out of touch could be challenged without risking loss of the seat itself.
Incumbent elected officials and their supporters often absurdly talk as if voters have an obligation to support them regardless of their voting record or attitude. No primary voter has anything approaching an “obligation” to support every incumbent. It’s the candidate’s “obligation” to run a campaign and compile a record deserving of voter support, but primary voters should consider the bigger picture.
Some Senate challengers this year, however, could win in the primary, but lose seats in the general election that the GOP might otherwise hold. That wouldn’t matter much if the Republicans had no chance of regaining control of the Senate or if doing so would make no difference in terms of policy or the 2016 election. In a year in which the analysts today are saying Republicans have a better than even chance of picking up the Senate, the GOP can ill afford to lose any of the seats it now holds. In fact, under such circumstances, a primary voter must think of the consequences of opening the door to the possibility that his vote could help the Democrats hold their majority and enable President Obama for the next two years.
Under such circumstances, voters need to weigh carefully whether they want to go with a risky challenger over an incumbent who may be less than perfect, but far better than any Democrat. If the outcome of a contested primary won’t make a difference, that’s one thing, but if it could, that’s something very different.
If the fall elections are as important as many believe this year, and if the country is in as bad shape as some fear, it becomes very dangerous to allow a desire for the perfect to destroy the good.
A primary voter in, say, Kentucky should keep this in mind in deciding whether to vote for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell or his primary opponent. Kentucky is not a safe state for Republicans and it is possible that by defeating Mr. McConnell there, Kentucky voters could end up with a Democratic senator. Then Democrats could retain control of the Senate and Mr. Obama could have two more years to fundamentally alter the America those very voters want to preserve.
High stakes? You bet.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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