The Corner

The GOP’s Senate Problem

In The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes notes that Republicans have thrown away some Senate seats in the last two elections and suggests that more involvement by Senate Republicans in contested primaries will help them avoid repeating this mistake. My new Bloomberg View column strikes a more pessimistic note. I argue that more D.C. involvement wouldn’t have made a difference in either Missouri or Indiana this year:

Party insiders knew from the start that Todd Akin, the candidate who won the nomination in Missouri, was going to be trouble — enough that the Democrats were running ads to boost him. Republicans also knew that denouncing him would help him present himself as a threat to the establishment. Akin was in a three-way primary race so tight that it was hard for those who feared him to unite behind an alternative and pressure the other candidate to get out.

In Indiana, the party establishment preferred Richard Lugar, the incumbent senator, to Richard Mourdock, who successfully challenged Lugar in the primary. Nobody, however, foresaw that Mourdock would self-destruct. Writing on Salon.com in May, Steve Kornacki contrasted Mourdock with losing Tea Party candidates from 2010: “Mourdock — unlike, say, Christine O’Donnell or Joe Miller — is an established statewide politician whose public behavior doesn’t easily conform to the image of a kook.”

Focusing on the Indiana and Missouri defeats to the exclusion of all the other Senate losses makes tea partiers and social conservatives look especially to blame for a disappointing election. As I go on to argue, they aren’t.

It seems to me in general to be a mistake to look at across-the-board defeats in contested Senate races and assume that the main problem is that Republicans are picking candidates who, whatever part of the country and party faction they come from, just happen to be lousy. It’s the party’s message that most needs fixing. Ben Domenech, in his email newsletter, pushes back against my conclusion by noting that candidate quality matters. I don’t dispute that; how could anyone? But even lousy Republican candidates ought to be able to win in North Dakota, and the fact that one couldn’t — and other candidates of varying quality lost almost every contested Senate race — suggests that there’s a problem with the party brand that goes deeper than the particular defects of this candidate or that. And I suspect that Domenech does not really disagree with me about the limited upside of more involvement by D.C.-based Republicans in Senate primaries, or of any other reform to the candidate-selection process.

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

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