The Senate and the GOP Establishment

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a front-page story about how American Crossroads wants to intervene in Senate primaries to prevent candidates it considers unelectable from getting nominated. Politico then ran a story about the sharp criticism of this effort from conservative groups who regard American Crossroads as a bunch of RINO squishes. On Twitter I’ve been reading conservatives who think the party establishment is declaring war on the Tea Party. I don’t think of the Times story as anything conservatives should find alarming, but I am also skeptical that American Crossroads is going to be able to do much to improve Republican Senate prospects.

Steven Law, the head of American Crossroads, told the Times that he wants to get conservatives elected; he is not on a mission to stamp out grassroots conservatism and he’s not “in the incumbent protection business.” I take him at his word: He is, in my experience, solidly conservative himself, and served in the top ranks of the most successfully conservative Cabinet department of the George W. Bush administration (Labor, under Elaine Chao). American Crossroads spent a lot of money on behalf of conservative candidates such as Representative Allen West in 2012 2010. My guess is that Law really does want to implement the “Buckley rule” of picking the most electable conservative. (If you want to build suspicions on the right, though, announce this type of project in the pages of the Times.)

Of course different Republicans have different views about who counts as a conservative and which of them is most electable — and that’s a big part of the problem with the effort. No faction of the party has shown obviously better judgment than any other. Social conservatives, tea partiers, and the party establishment all were associated with candidates who turned out to be duds in 2010 and 2012. Party-establishment types and the media often bring up Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, and other insurgent-Right candidates who lost races that had been considered winnable. But Rick Berg, George Allen, Denny Rehberg, and Tommy Thompson all lost races that had been considered winnable, too, and none of them fit that mold. It’s a mistake for any faction of the Republican party to conclude that it’s the other guys who are the problem.

Also, could the party establishment really have made a difference in any of the races that it has focused on? Akin won a tight three-way primary. Would the party establishment really have been able to unite behind one of the other two candidates? The party establishment’s preference for Richard Lugar over Richard Mourdock in Indiana, or Mike Castle over Christine O’Donnell, was no secret. Would more spending for the establishment candidate and against the insurgent have changed the outcome, or just inspired a grassroots backlash? By the same token, do conservatives really have any reason to fear that American Crossroads would have kept Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz from dominating their Republican primaries even if it had gotten involved?

I have heard one idea percolating among establishment Republicans since the election that puts the American Crossroads gambit in a different light. It’s that the party establishment should try harder to get rid of establishment candidates who can’t get grassroots conservative support, or are otherwise unelectable. In other words, they should lean on the Lugars and Connie Macks of the party to bow out, thus enabling a wider field of candidates to run. I doubt this would work either: Would an incumbent such as Lugar really be dissuaded by a party bigwig who says he knows the candidate’s state better than he does? Could anyone in Delaware have won both the primary and the general in 2010? But if that’s something American Crossroads and similar groups are interested in, the idea has a bit more promise than just trying to identify future Akins and sink them.

Correction: I wrote that American Crossroads had spent money supporting Allen West in 2012; should have said in 2010. While I’m sorry for the mistake, it doesn’t affect the point I was making in that passage–a point reinforced by the fact that the group has also spent money trying to get Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, Ken Buck, Sharron Angle, and Richard Mourdock elected.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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