The Campaign Spot

Can Tea Party Candidates Win Statewide in Swing States?

At some point, the question of GOP statewide candidates and the Tea Party style will have to be hashed out; Jonah touches on this a bit in the Corner in discussing Pete Spiliakos’s concept of “RightWorld Provincial.”

When Sharron Angle was in the Nevada state legislature, she was the most conservative lawmaker in the state. Nevada is not a deeply conservative state; with Bush winning it twice and Obama winning it once, and a split Senate and House delegation, it is a classic “purple” state. It is exceptionally rare to see purple states electing the most conservative lawmaker in the state to statewide office. In this light, Angle and her team are to be saluted for doing as well as they did.

Was Ken Buck too conservative for Colorado? Perhaps; it too is a classic purple state: won by Bush twice and Obama once, two Democratic senators, Democratic governor, divided House delegation. Republicans dominated the state’s politics in the first half of the past decade; Democrats, the second half.

Carly Fiorina’s defeat in California, by a wider margin than many expected, proves that sometimes you can have an “establishment” candidate who stumbles and falls, too. We can argue whether Dino Rossi or Linda McMahon fit the definition of “Tea Party” candidates, and acknowledge that the Tea Parties explicitly seek to build a better and more principled political movement, not just a winning one.

But if Republicans want to win Senate seats, they need their primary voters to have a sense of how conservative a candidate they can nominate and still win. In Kentucky, you can nominate a Rand Paul. In Utah, you can replace a Bob Bennett with a Mike Lee and still win handily. In South Carolina, Republicans will be able to nominate someone much more conservative than Lindsey Graham in 2014.

But in other states, particularly the blue Northeast and West Coast, Republicans are probably not going to win statewide races with candidates who stir the hearts of Tea Partiers. (Remember, Chris Christie was allegedly the “establishment moderate” in the New Jersey governor’s primary.)

You can sense where this is headed, right?

Delaware is a dark-blue state. It scores D+7 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index, it has a Democratic governor who won by 36 points and another Democratic senator who won by 50 points in 2006, and Democrats control the state senate and state house. The last Republican besides Mike Castle to win a big statewide race was Bill Roth in 1994; the last Republican besides Mike Castle to win the governorship was Pete du Pont in 1980.

If somebody wants to argue that Mike Castle was too much of a squish for them to support, that’s fine — I can’t begrudge someone making cap-and-trade their line in the sand — but what was particularly troubling during the whole primary fight was the number of conservatives, including some I really admire and respect, pretending that a conservative firebrand had a serious possibility of being elected in this state. Even in a big Republican wave year, Christine O’Donnell never had a chance. Out of respect for her and her supporters (and my readers who were big fans of her), I didn’t beat this drum during the general election. But now that the votes have been cast and counted, and the result is a 16-point margin of victory for Coons, it is time to look clearly at political realities.

O’Donnell had a few shining moments as a candidate, and got a raw deal in much of the coverage. But in the end, this state’s current electorate would never elect the kind of Republican who would score . . . oh, 80 to 100 in the ACU ratings, as O’Donnell almost certainly would. The realistic options were either the guy with the lifetime 52 ACU rating (Castle) or the guy who will probably have the 10 ACU rating (Senator-elect Coons).

In 2012, Republicans will need challengers for Senate races in Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, and California, as well as friendlier territory. In these blue states, perhaps they will discover a staunch conservative who can win over independents by sheer charisma. (I support human cloning of Marco Rubio.) But more likely, for a Republican to win in these states, they’ll need a challenger who can emphasize some Tea Party points while still strongly appealing to independents and deviating from the party line periodically. The template would seem to be Scott Brown or Chris Christie, but perhaps Paul LePage, the new Republican governor of Maine, is another example . . .

UPDATE: One of my readers, a Republican in Delaware who’s plugged into state GOP circles, offers these thoughts:

My assessment is that only three states in the nation did not experience some benefit of the “wave” on Tuesday – California, Hawaii, and Delaware.  Even New York picked up unanticipated congressional seats and out-performed in other congressional races; and clearly without any help from the top of the ticket.  The two congressional losses in Connecticut were a disappointment, but as of this writing, the GOP candidate for Governor may yet win.  So the states and regions varied from a ripple to a tsunami.

[Note from Jim: Massachusetts readers are probably lamenting that they feel on par with California, Hawaii, and Delaware.]

As to Delaware, as I feared, Christine O’Donnell not only lost badly to Coons, she precipitated a down-ballot disaster for the GOP, an outcome that would never have occurred with Castle running for, and likely winning, the U.S. Senate seat.  O’Donnell claimed on Tuesday night that she forever changed the Republican Party in Delaware and she is right: she has put the GOP on life support, transitioning Delaware from dark blue to navy blue.  O’Donnell’s negative coattails were as follows:  State Senator Colin Bonini, a genuine conservative running for state Treasurer, had counted on Castle being at the top of the ticket – as did all House and Senate challengers throughout the state.  Bonini lost 51-49.  Our GOP state auditor, Tom Wagner, barely held on by 0.5 percent and may yet face a recount.  In the State House of Representatives, the GOP needed a net gain of 5 sets to flip the chamber back to the GOP (held by the Ds 24-17).  The GOP had held the House chamber since Pete du Pont’s days as Governor until the Obama-Biden landslide of 2008.  Instead of gaining seats on Tuesday, the GOP lost additional seats, giving the House a liberal veto-proof majority over a Democratic governor.  GOP challengers in Brandywine Hundred, the most Republican suburbs of New Castle County, went down to defeat in two races that were deemed an easy flip.  In one seat held by a freshman GOP House member won in a special election in December 2008 in a slightly more challenging suburban district, this GOP incumbent was defeated in the Democratic tide.  In other areas of New Castle County, polished and well-recruited GOP challengers in the Newark and Middletown suburbs lost by 2-1 or worse.  In Kent County, a Democratic member arrested for DUI in mid-October, who was expected to lose by partisans on both sides, was re-elected.

The GOP base obviously had its issues with Mike Castle, culminating with the congressman’s cap-and-trade vote in 2009, but this was the wrong moment to punish Castle: cutting off their nose to spite their face.  Not only were the in-state consequences horrifying, Delaware threw away a senator who would have been #1 in seniority among the freshman class, given his 9 terms in the House, his former governorship, and his immediate swearing-in to fill the Biden vacancy.  In addition to losing a GOP seat in the United States Senate and giving the Delaware GOP some badly-needed life to continue a rebuilding process, we are left with ashes.  We burned down the village to save it.  Moreover, Castle was only going to serve the remaining 4 years of the Biden vacancy and then retire.  At least the GOP would have had the opportunity to groom a successor from a growing conservative bench.  We now have nothing – zip, zero, nada.

That is not to say that Castle wasn’t warned of what was coming: according to the Weekly Standard, NRSC officials pleaded with Castle to get back to his base, take off the $600 suits, and win the GOP primary fair and square.  He had more than adequate warning, with conservative victories on the march from Nevada to Colorado to Alaska – just weeks before the late Delaware primary.  If Fred Barnes is correct, Castle refused the advice of the NRSC and badly mishandled the O’Donnell threat.

However, in the final analysis I do not understand the logic of demanding ideological purity when the choices are as follows: a near-guaranteed win for someone who agrees with you 60% of the time; or taking a long-shot risk with someone who agrees with you 100% of the time.  Instead we got, perhaps for life, a new senator who agrees with us zero percent of the time.  Castle has been wrong on environmental issues for years.  So be it.  You take the good with the bad in this business.  Cap-and-trade wasn’t going to be enacted with a GOP Senate majority in any case.  We accomplish nothing if we are out of power.  Moreover, Castle wanted to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, cut spending, repeal and replace Obamacare, and strengthen national defense.  This is a good start for me.  Senator-elect Coons shares none of these objectives.

I am not pleased or impressed with Palin’s track record this cycle: she has proven that she cannot carry water in her own state; and she, Levin, Hannity and DeMint made a serious miscalculation in Delaware.  Palin’s lame explanation that Castle would not have necessarily won the seat and that it was “worth a shot” is not only wrong, but it further demonstrates that she is not worthy of being the GOP standard bearer in 2012.  Everyone recognizes that the Tea Party movement has been a tremendous asset to the GOP and that the two institutions can work together to rebuild a center-right coalition for the foreseeable future.  But the Tea Party types must recognize that there are limits to which an electorate will move in blue states, and that you must nominate, in Bill Buckley’s theorem, the most electable conservative. 

And, ultimately, candidate quality counts – particularly to independent voters.  O’Donnell, Buck, and Angle were not ready for prime-time and the scrutiny that accompanies conservative candidates in races of this magnitude.  Is this fair to GOP conservatives? No.  But it is reality.

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