Tea Party Crashers

Rand Paul’s views were too “strange” to win a general election. Kentucky’s Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate currently leads his Democratic opponent by 15 points.

Ken Buck was “too crazy for Colorado.” In polls dating back to late winter, Buck has consistently received more support than Democratic Senator Michael Bennet.

Charlie Crist, not Marco Rubio, stood the best chance of winning a general election. Rubio is now ahead of Independent Crist by 14 points and Democrat Kendrick Meek by 19 points.
The lesson?

Conservatives should stop taking election advice from liberals, be they liberal Republicans or liberal Democrats. They don’t have conservatives’ best interests at heart, and their reference point for “electability” begins and ends with mistaking their narrow ideology for the broader public view. If “extremists” are outpolling “mainstream” candidates, then a recalibration of the political spectrum may be in order.

Had Republicans heeded liberal advice in 1980, President Howard Baker or, perhaps, four more years of Jimmy Carter, would have been the result.

“The Republican Party is determined to have Mr. Carter’s favorite Republican as their candidate,” Joseph Harsch wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in March 1980. “Every time Mr. Reagan wins another primary the White House cheers, on the assumption that Mr. Reagan is the easiest Republican for Mr. Carter to defeat in November. The polls would seem to confirm the White House assumption.”

“Mr. Carter could have been beaten this year had the GOP put electability ahead of ideology,” William Lunch gloated in the New York Times just two months before the election. “But having chosen the latter, I believe they are in for a dispiriting repetition of extremism syndrome.”

It wasn’t just the liberal press that got 1980 wrong. Republicans did. Rival John Anderson called candidate Reagan a sure-fire “loser,” likening the prospect of his nomination to the Republican Party committing political suicide. Gerald Ford labeled Reagan “unelectable” (Ironically, it was Anderson’s political career that ended in a self-inflicted blow in 1980, and Ford who had proved “unelectable” versus Jimmy Carter four years earlier.).

One needn’t set the way-back machine to 1980, or rely on the past wishful thinking of liberals, to find pundits declaring Republican primary winners dead-on-arrival before the general election.

“There’s not a chance in hell a Republican can win that seat” and “this guy doesn’t stand a chance” were among the postings on the right-wing FreeRepublic site less than a year ago concerning Scott Brown’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. A popular notion among Massachusetts conservatives was that Brown was shrewdly running against Democrat Martha Coakley to set himself up to run for her attorney general job once she became senator.

So improbable was a Brown victory that his party initially refused to fund him. A month before the election, the Boston Globe matter-of-factly reported, “The Republican nominee has little hope of receiving direct financial help from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is stockpiling cash for assaults on vulnerable Democrats next year and to defend GOP seats that are threatened.”

Brown trailed by more than 30 points less than two months prior to the general election. Even Christine O’Donnell, once thought the longest of long shots, trails Democrat rival Chris Coons by just 11 points in Delaware’s Senate race. Winning is not outside of the question. And if O’Donnell loses, it will have less to do with her right-wing politics—which more closely meshes with the Christian Coalition movement of the ’90s than with today’s Tea Party zeitgeist—than with questions about her finances, litigiousness, and resume. Conservatism is an electoral help, not a hindrance.

Conservative voters cast liberal ballots when they obsess over the question: “Which candidate has the best shot at winning?” A more important query is: “Which candidate will govern most wisely?” Republicans most insistent in asking the former question practically never ask the latter.

Should most of the Tea Party favorites win in November, the raison d’être for nominating liberal Republicans will appear as unreasonable as nominating Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, and Pat Toomey had appeared prior to this election cycle.

These may be the Republicans that Democrats wanted to face this November. They’re not the ones they want to see in Congress come January. Be careful of what you wish for.