Politics & Policy

Mudslide in Republican Senate Primaries

Turtle or TARP? A quick tour of this year’s least cordial primary races

A quick tour of this election cycle’s most contested Senate Republican primaries:

In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s campaign spotlighted a Politico report uncovering that challenger Matt Bevin, who had been hitting McConnell on his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), had a quite different view of the issue back in 2008, as well as different views of the government takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Federal Reserve’s decision to begin buying commercial paper issued by banks.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, aiming to shore up Bevin, aired an ad contending that “Mitch McConnell is trying to bully and intimidate conservatives just like the IRS is.” The Washington Examiner’s Byron York said the ad was “based in part on supposition, misleading reporting, questionable assertions and a single (erroneously cited) poll.”

In Mississippi, six-term incumbent Thad Cochran has a super PAC, Mississippi Conservatives PAC, which insists his rival, Chris McDaniel, is a “personal injury trial lawyer” who “opposes tort reform” and “voted for $1.2 billion in new debt as a state legislator.” (That was in state budget votes. FactCheck.org notes, “That figure includes seven bills that didn’t become law, including one that never came up for a vote, and two bills that McDaniel did not approve on the final vote.”) Cochran’s PAC also accuses McDaniel of voting to fund Common Core (by voting for appropriations for the state Department of Education) and says the number of votes he missed so far this year is scandalous . . . as McDaniel has been running for U.S. Senate, of course.

For his part, McDaniel hits Cochran on the same criteria, accusing him of voting for unpopular programs because he voted for large appropriations bills that tied together popular spending programs and unpopular ones. He also criticizes Cochran for voting to reopen the government last fall, calling it a compromise. This argument transforms a required step to end the shutdown and mitigate political damage into evidence of insufficient dedication to principle.

Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary is expected to come down to former state treasurer Shane Osborn and Midland University president Ben Sasse.

Consultants working for Osborn sent around Sasse’s interview with Fox Business Channel’s John Stossel, in which the Fox host rather skeptically assesses Sasse’s suggestion that the United States would be better served if the capital were moved to Nebraska. Stossel scoffs that Sasse calls himself an outsider, pointing to his past work as assistant secretary for planning at the Department of Health and Human Services, chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Justice, chief of staff to a U.S. congressman, and consultant to the Department of Homeland Security.

Dean Clancy of FreedomWorks interviewed the candidate and came to the surprising conclusion that Sasse “supports the basic principles of Obamacare, if not all the details.”

Jeffrey Anderson took to the pages of The Weekly Standard to denounce the denunciation: “There are two kinds of right-leaning politicians or commentators who endanger the cause of repeal: those who don’t really care about repeal because they don’t really think Obamacare is all that bad, and those who refuse to offer an alternative because they cannot see the political reality on the ground — namely, that you can’t beat something with nothing. Whether it’s Mitt Romney (a member of the first camp) or Dean Clancy (a member of the second), each of these two forms of erroneous thinking leads to the same place:  the failure to defeat Obamacare.”

In Texas, incumbent senator John Cornyn is considered a heavy favorite, but he faces a loud, persistent challenge from Representative Steve Stockman.

Stockman interprets Cornyn’s vote for cloture on a compromise budget bill and an appropriations bill as voting “twice to approve abortion funding through Obamacare.” The National Right to Life Committee has given Cornyn a 100 percent rating for 2013 and a 100 rating for 2014. Overall, he’s voted with the NRLC position 36 times on key votes, failed to vote once, and never voted against the organization on a key vote.

Now another Senate challenger, previously little-known Dwayne Stovall, unveiled a new ad accusing Cornyn of thinking he works for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and comparing McConnell to a cartoon turtle:

These aren’t necessarily the worst primary attacks of recent memory, but there’s something dispiriting about their early start and the prospect of several more months of this. (The meme “Boy, that escalated quickly!” fits.) There’s a certain inventiveness and creative flair brought to the effort to showcase the opponent’s worst side. We can only imagine what could be accomplished if campaigns applied that energy, inspiration, and passion to a positive message about why conservative ideas work.  

Yes, primaries are meant to be a training ground for the general election. A candidate who withers under criticism from a Republican opponent is probably going to crumble under the sustained joint assault of the Democratic opponent and a hostile media.

We have a choice. We can either agree that all is fair in love, war, and Republican primaries, and understand that every candidate is going to go all-out 110 percent. We can all collectively resolve that every aspect of our favorite candidate’s past is fair game, and that we have an obligation to support the primary winner afterwards, no matter how nasty it got, and no matter how unfair, distorted, or below-the-belt we thought the attacks were.

Or we can agree that it doesn’t serve any Republican candidate’s greater cause to spend several months ripping a primary opponent to shreds, hoping to eke out that primary win with 51 percent and assuming or hoping that the other 49 percent won’t have any hard feelings. Sure, you can win by driving up the opponent’s negatives — it may even be the easiest way — but these campaigns blithely shrug off the considerable collateral damage.

Weeks of televised ads painting the opponent as a monster, a weathervane, or a crook plants seeds for the Democratic rival to harvest. Politics looks like a playground for the cynical, the crooked, and the naïve sheep. No one in their right mind would enthusiastically support any candidate who genuinely resembled the caricature depicted in his opponent’s attacks, much less volunteer on his behalf or actively work to put him in office. The approach creates a dispirited party, an even more disinterested general electorate, an even more cynical press, and an ugly public discourse.

A candidate needs a unified party behind him to win the general. There is a spectacular arrogance displayed by candidates who bombard their opponent with mud, implying that their opponents’ supporters are fools or crooks themselves, and then turn around the next day and expect loyal support.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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