The GOP’s Intra-Party Primary Wars

by John Fund
Sometimes the Tea Party picks the best candidates, but sometimes the establishment does.

Tea-party conservatives have become so suspicious of the primary recommendations of establishment GOP figures such as Karl Rove that they dismiss them out of hand. That’s wrong. There are times when Republicans need to sound the alarm bells to avoid catastrophic candidates whose nomination can only help Democrats.

Rove was in my hometown of Sacramento, Calif., last week for a speech to the National Federation of Independent Business. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Rove was asked his opinion of the two major GOP contenders vying to oppose Governor Jerry Brown this fall. Rove said he wouldn’t formally endorse anyone but that he had met with Neel Kashkari, a former Bush Treasury Department official. According to someone present, Rove told NFIB members that “if Republicans have to pick someone to lose to Jerry Brown, they’d be stupid not to pick” Kashkari.

He then turned his attention to Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican who is currently on track to do well enough in California’s open primary in June to snag a runoff spot in the November election; the top two finishers in June’s primary will advance regardless of party affiliation. “The comments that the other guy has made in the past are going to damage the party with Latinos on Election Day,” Rove said, referring to Donnelly.

That’s an understatement. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that in March 2006 Donnelly used inflammatory language in railing against illegal immigrants at a rally. “I am a descendant of Jim Bowie, who died at the Alamo,” Donnelly, a founder of the Minuteman border-patrol group, told Minuteman members: “It is rumored that [Bowie] took a dozen Mexican soldiers to their deaths before they finally killed him. How many of you will rise up and take his place on that wall?”

Donnelly also had words for some of the people who had marched earlier that day in Los Angeles in support of illegal immigrants. Some waved Mexican flags, prompting Donnelly to argue: “We are in a war. You may not want to accept it, but the other side has declared war on us.” Illegal immigrants were part of a “growing insurgency,” he added. “We need to begin to root out the insurgency in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, just as we are doing in Baghdad, Samarra, and Tikrit, 9,000 miles away. Right now, in the United States of America, there are 850,000 gang members, two-thirds of whom are illegal aliens.”

Donnelly defended his remarks after the story appeared: “I am not backing away from the fact that we are in a war.” He appeared to step back only slightly from that last week when he insisted he was not inciting violence or racism: “Everybody who knows me knows that,” he said. “I was giving a call to action in a historical context, for people to join our group. . . . I have stood up against the cartels who don’t just traffic in drugs, but in kids and women.” So “these are serious issues. . . . I’m grateful they brought it back up.”

But it’s untrue to say that everybody who knows” Donnelly agrees his remarks were acceptable. Rosario Marin, who served as the U.S. treasurer under President George W. Bush, is “just appalled” by Donnelly’s remarks. “It’s an embarrassment not only to himself and the efforts I am involved in,” she says. “It makes my job much more difficult.” In 2010, Jerry Brown defeated Republican Meg Whitman by 13 points statewide, but by 33 points among Latinos.

Neel Kashkari, Donnelly’s opponent, is no conservative dreamboat. A former Goldman Sachs executive and Treasury’s first administrator of the TARP financial bailout, he is clearly a competent administrator who approaches issues from a pragmatic rather than ideological perspective. But his detailed plans to give tax holidays to firms locating in California, dump Brown’s white-elephant high-speed-rail line, and expand charter schools do address the root causes of much of the Golden State’s rot. Debates between him and Brown would be substantive and revealing. Having a son of immigrants from India run for office would also improve the Republican name brand in an increasingly diverse state.

While it’s true that Governor Brown is the overwhelming favorite this fall, the person at the top of the GOP ticket matters. There will be five competitive House races in California this year. At the state level, Republicans have a chance to win the comptroller’s race with Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin, and they could end Democrats’ two-thirds control of the California state senate. Donnelly’s past and present antics could distract from the most pressing issues and spur Democratic turnout while repelling Republican voters on Election Day.

The same scenario could play out in Virginia’s tenth congressional district, which is being vacated by Representative Frank Wolf after 34 years. This district consists of a swath of suburbs and exurbs around Washington, D.C., and it is prime purple territory. Barack Obama won it by three points in 2008; Mitt Romney won it by one point in 2012.

The front-runner for the GOP nomination is Barbara Comstock, a former chief counsel for the Government Reform and Oversight Committee. She has been elected three times to the Virginia legislature from a Democratic-leaning district that includes the upscale suburb of McLean. A prodigious fundraiser, she is well positioned to win the House seat in November — keeping it within the GOP camp — and then rise quickly to the ranks of Republican leadership.

But first she must get past an April 26 GOP selection process that will be a low-turnout affair combining elements of both a primary and a convention. Her main opponent is 70-year-old fellow GOP state legislator Bob Marshall. He has previously demonstrated his strength with conservative activists in low-turnout contests. In 2008, at a state GOP convention, he lost a U.S. Senate primary to former governor Jim Gilmore by just 66 votes out of more than 10,300 votes cast.

Marshall’s problem is that his extreme rhetoric marks him as easy prey for Democratic attack ads in November. In my view, he is a dead-weight loser — and I almost never reach such a conclusion about a conservative candidate in a competitive district.

Last Thursday, the Washington Times did an analysis of his record and noted that “Marshall has said disabled children can be God’s vengeance against women who have had abortions.” Indeed, in 2010, Marshall spoke at a rally calling for an end to state funding of Planned Parenthood. “When you abort the firstborn of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children,” he claimed. “This is a special punishment, Christians would suggest.”

After an uproar, Marshall waited five days to offer a quasi-apology, saying he had been misconstrued. But days after this walkback, he took to the House floor and claimed his statement had “been repeated endless times in print and in the electronic media without anyone producing the smoking-gun tape.” In reality, his words had been posted on YouTube for several days and can still be found there.

“He’s Todd Akin on steroids,” adds one Northern Virginia conservative activist who has endorsed no one for the seat. He noted that after last year’s Supreme Court decision striking down a gay-marriage ban in California, Marshall said, “For all I know, [Justice Anthony] Kennedy is a homosexual.” When asked by the Washington Times about his comment, he defended it: “Clearly, some of the people making these decisions must be rationalizing their own bad behavior.” Justice Kennedy, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, has been married for 51 years and has three children. 

When the Washington Times questioned Marshall about his record, he wouldn’t bend: “I don’t care. I mean if I say something in public, I say it in public.” Marshall is simply not a credible, electable candidate outside of his small state legislative district, where his prodigious constituent-service work has allowed him to survive.

The controversies over the candidacies of Tim Donnelly and Bob Marshall are part of a larger story. Many Republicans are haunted by the loss of two Senate seats in 2012 as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana stepped on their tongues and made repellent extremist statements that helped their Democratic opponents win. This year, GOP establishment groups are pouring money into races where moderate incumbents face tea-party challenges in the primaries. But the reality is more complicated, and the establishment must recognize this even while it is carrying out what it considers acts of “political hygiene.” Republicans of all kinds need to be able to make distinctions in primaries this year. Sometimes intervention to stop divisive candidates is called for — as in California and Virginia — this year. But, and this is where it’s complex, sometimes it’s old establishment warhorses who need to be put out to pasture.

It’s simply not always the case that tea-party challengers are clear losers and that establishment candidates are preferable. In 2012, the GOP establishment insisted on backing two Beltway insiders, Congressmen Denny Rehberg of Montana and Rick Berg of North Dakota, as the GOP nominees for Senate races in those states. They both proved to be terrible candidates and lost. Some conservatives, disgusted with Rehberg’s votes against Paul Ryan’s House budgets, helped lift the libertarian candidate to an unprecedented 7 percent of the vote, causing Rehberg to lose by four percentage points in a state Mitt Romney carried by 14 points. In North Dakota, Berg ran a content-free campaign in which his personal business foibles dominated the discussion. He wound up losing by a single percentage point in a state Romney carried by 20 points.

The lesson here is that Republicans can lose if they nominate bad candidates, no matter what wing of the party they come from. Both the Tea Party and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have made mistakes in selecting candidates, and it behooves both sides in the GOP primary wars to recognize that the other side often has a point.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist at National Review Online.