The Republican Party never learns. Time and again, apparently on the theory that real conservatives just can’t win against liberal Democrats, party bosses seem compelled to support wishy-washy, moderate-to-liberal Republicans over solid conservatives in primary elections across the country.
In 2004, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (RINO-PA) was justifiably fighting for his political life. After years of betraying the principles of the Republican Party, which had kept him in power for decades, Specter was being challenged in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary by a conservative congressman named Pat Toomey. Toomey was well on his way to winning that primary when the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the White House rode in like the cavalry to rescue Specter. The party even enlisted the help of Pennsylvania’s junior Senator Rick Santorum on Specter’s behalf, a move that arguably cost Santorum his own seat two years later.
There are many other examples of the GOP throwing conservatives under the political bus. In 2002, the White House quietly supported liberal former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan over conservative businessman Bill Simon for governor of California. Simon limped into the general election against incumbent Gray Davis with lackluster support from the president and the party, but it was too little too late.
Likewise, also in 2002, the party bigwigs supported moderate Iowa congressman Greg Ganske over a solid conservative named Bill Salier, an agri-businessman and decorated former Marine, as the GOP nominee against veteran liberal U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin. Ganske, armed with millions of party-generated dollars, still saw over forty percent of the GOP primary vote go to Salier. Harkin went on to defeat Ganske in a predictable general election campaign.
Fast forward to the 2008 U.S. Senate race in Nebraska, quickly shaping up as one of the most contentious in the nation. Sen. Chuck Hagel, an egotistical two-term incumbent who has suggested impeaching President Bush as a way of getting his attention and who insists on siding with Democrats who want to surrender to the terrorists in Iraq, can’t seem to make up his mind whether he wants to a) run for president; b) run for re-election; or c) retire. Hagel even held a widely covered press conference in March to tell the world — again — that he can’t make up his mind.
Conventional wisdom says that since Hagel knows he has no chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination, odds are he intends to seek reelection to the United States Senate. That being the case, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, an upstart 38-year-old former state senator with a keen legal mind and a driving ambition to match, has decided to help Hagel into retirement. Bruning announced last month that because of Hagel’s votes against the troops and because of Hagel’s persistent criticism of the president’s prosecution of the war, he will challenge the incumbent for the GOP Senate nomination next year. Recent polling in the Cornhusker state shows Bruning leading Hagel by eight percentage points.
This past week, Hagel said publicly for the first time that he would consider an independent bid for the presidency. Add to that the fact that he met recently over a very public dinner with billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has also been hinting at an independent run, and you have some highly suspicious behavior for a supposedly loyal Republican.
Enter U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a conservative partisan who has had terse words for those who shamelessly play politics with the funding of our troops in the field in Iraq.
“This legislation is tragic,” McConnell said after the vote for surrender. “If the Iraqis make progress, we leave. If they don’t, we leave. This is not a choice; it is a mandate for defeat that al-Qaeda desperately wants.”
One might think that McConnell would be taking Chuck Hagel to the woodshed for his irresponsible statements about the president, his blatant flirting with third party activity and his vote for surrender in Iraq. Nope. In fact, McConnell will be headlining two high-level fund raisers for Hagel next month.
They just never learn.