The GOP Seems Bent on Backing Crazy Right-Wingers in the Mid-Terms: Good or Bad News for Dems?

Saturday brought the somewhat unsurprising, but nonetheless significant, news that Utah Republicans, in their state nominating conventions, had fired their incumbent Senator.

Bob Bennett is not burdened by scandal, nor has he been the kind of perennially unpopular politico that barely scrapes by intraparty challenges for the duration of his career (the way his fellow Utahn, Chris Cannon, was).

He is a standard-issue incumbent, who committed the capital offense (for 2010, anyway) of being a Republican occasionally capable of a non-ideological vote. This led him to a raft of opponents, and an unceremonious second-round exit in the state convention, one that was fueled at unbridled anger at ideological apostasy, as local columnist Peg McEntee pointed out:

When Bennett lost, the yips and howls from thousands of delegates sounded like coyotes going after one of their own.

Left standing were Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, both Utah County Republicans who like the tea partiers and 9/12ers just fine. Both claim to be strict constitutionalists who will free Utah from an oppressive federal government, take back federal lands in Utah and repeal health care reform.

This process is being repeated from coast-to-coast, where so-called mainstream or "establishment" Republicans are getting battered for their lack of commitment to the "principles" of conservatism.

Of course, the textbook example of this is in the Sunshine State, where the ideological drubbing of Florida Governor Charlie Crist was bad enough to drive him from the party, so convinced was he that he could not survive a Republican primary.

But Crist was not the only man whose political career was imperiled from a primary challenge to their right.

Two races have already confirmed that trend, as the Illinois gubernatorial primary (in a multi-candidate field) saw downstate conservative Bill Brady outlast the more moderate (and according to most polling at the time, more electable) Chicagoland state legislator, Kirk Dillard. Meanwhile, in a convention format similar to Utah's, Minnesota Republicans went with conservative state legislator Tom Emmer, who had ridden the momentum of an endorsement by none other than Sarah Palin.

Bennett, for what it is worth, is not the only incumbent Republican Senator fearing the end of his political career, An even more prominent incumbent is under high-profile fire right now: Arizona Senator John McCain. McCain's challenge from former bombastic conservative Congressman J.D. Hayworth has drawn no shortage of attention.

Meanwhile, several open seat races highlight establishment candidates taking on insurgent right-wing candidates. One of those will be decided in the coming weeks, when Trey Grayson and Rand Paul square off in Kentucky. Other similar challenges await in Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire.

In these intraparty schisms, Democrats often believe, is a window of opportunity for their preferred candidates. The next few months will be one of the only times you will see progressive political junkies rooting for the likes of J.D. Hayworth, Peter Hoekstra, and Judge Roy Moore.

The conventional wisdom for that is that more ideological Republican nominees will cede the center to the Democratic nominee, thus enhancing Democratic prospects. As SSP editor Crisitunity wrote of Minnesota's Tom Emmer:

"Emmer, considerably more conservative than the moderate Republicans who are usually the only type who can win statewide, can expect a tough go of it in the general -- especially if Independence Party candidate Tom Horner soaks up a big share of moderate votes. (Seifert would have faced the same problem, but Emmer, who just got a Sarah Palin endorsement, seems especially out-of-whack with his state's preferences.)"

There is, of course, some precedent for this.

In 2002, California's Democratic Governor, Gray Davis, was in fairly dire political straits. The political environment here was toxic amid an energy crisis which had entered the phrase "rolling blackout" into every Californian's lexicon. But the unfortunate Davis got an incredible dose of political luck when Republicans nominated businessman Bill Simon as their gubernatorial nominee, denying the bid of the infinitely more moderate (and, for that matter, infinitely more electable) Republican Mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan. Davis, despite approval ratings that fell as low as the 30s, emerged victorious in November by nearly half a million votes.

There are other examples, as well. A personal favorite: 1996, when Illiois Republicans rejected the establishment choice, Lt. Governor Bob Kustra, for virtually unknown state legislator Al Salvi. Salvi was a teabagger ahead of his time, eviscerating Kustra on the issue of taxes. It reached the point that if you knew nothing else about Bob Kustra, you knew that he had voted to raise taxes 35 times. Salvi won a narrow victory in the primary. Far too ideologically to the right to resonate with the electorate of a blue state like Illinois, Salvi went on to lose to Democratic nominee Dick Durbin by double digits.

With this kind of history in the rear-view mirror, it is with some amount of anticipation that Democrats look to these internecine struggles. Given the trip down memory lane, and the examples of Bill Simon and Al Salvi, such anticipation might seem to be justified.

However, let's also focus on the cautionary tale. I give you one Doctor Thomas Coburn, junior Senator from the state of Oklahoma.

People forget that Coburn was far from the consensus pick when he elected to run for the Senate in 2004 to replace the retiring Don Nickles. The Oklahoma Republican establishment had rallied around another candidate, Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, considered by most to be the more moderate of the two (then again, it isn't difficult to be more moderate than Tom Coburn).

When Coburn easily dispatched Humphreys in the GOP primary, Democrats thought the golden ticket had fallen into their hands. To face off against Coburn (whose penchant for off-putting remarks led the state Democratic chairman to simply conclude he was crazy), the Democrats had nominated conservative Democratic Congressman Brad Carson, easily the most electable Democrat (outside of popular Governor Brad Henry) that the party could have selected.

Carson toed a carefully bipartisan line, while Coburn rambled on about rampant lesbianism in the schools of southeastern Oklahoma. And it STILL didn't matter: on Election Day, Brad Carson was wiped out, losing to Coburn by a 53-41 margin.

The lesson in that is simply the nomination of the more extremist ideological candidate is not an opportunity in and of itself. The climate and location matter a great deal, as well. It is one thing to dispatch a far-right GOP contender in Minnesota or Illinois.

It is quite another to do it in Alabama.

There is also this side effect to consider: even if the "more moderate" Republican candidates carry the day, the trauma of being under fire often leads them to mimic the insurgent candidates they claim are so very dangerous. As columnist Ruth Marcus noted this morning in a column picked up by our own DemFromCT in his must-read "Abbreviated Pundit Wrap-Up":

The most disturbing aspect of Bennett’s defeat is the chastening effect it is likely to have on nervous GOP lawmakers. They are already hardly profiles in courage -- just take a look at the campaign positions adopted by ex-maverick John McCain, facing a primary challenge in Arizona from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

Seeing Bennett’s scalp is not apt to strengthen their spines.

The Alabama gubernatorial race is a textbook example of this. There are no "mainstream" aspirants on the GOP side anymore. After being attacked as insufficient fealty to Christianity, for example, frontrunner Bradley Byrne felt the need to hold a press availability and reaffirm his faith in biblical inerrancy.

We have also seen John McCain and Charlie Crist dance similar routines in order to try to out-insurgent the insurgent candidates. McCain on immigration was particularly dispiriting.

If successful in making the GOP nominees completely unelectable, then these kinds of primary challenges are a source of political opportunity for Democrats. But don't discount the inherent dangers in these primaries, as well. There is always the possibility that the less-electable candidate will win, or, failing that, the possibility that the "mainstream" candidate who survives will become what he/she beheld.


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