Advice for GOP Candidates: Don't Show up Drunk or Embrace the Establishment

Reid Wilson
National Journal

With an unpopular Congress and a pessimistic electorate, no candidate wants to embrace the establishment label. Being a part of the status quo is as dangerous to one’s political career as openly endorsing an opponent, snapping at a constituent, or showing up to a debate drunk.

But before the general election rolls around, being a member of the political establishment pays vastly different dividends, depending on which side of the aisle a candidate calls home. To Republican candidates, being an insider has become a distinctly negative experience. To Democrats, being the anointed candidate is good enough to punch your ticket to the general election.

In Texas, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had support from virtually every prominent Republican in the state, starting with Gov. Rick Perry. But he couldn’t hold off former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who labeled himself the outsider and won a surprising upset last week. Dewhurst joins the likes of establishment-backed GOP candidates Jon Bruning in Nebraska, John Brunner and Sarah Steelman in Missouri, and Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana in failing to fight off outsider challengers. And Tommy Thompson, the four-term former Wisconsin governor who could be the epitome of the Republican establishment, is having a difficult time breaking through a hard ceiling of about 35 percent in the polls in advance of his primary next week.

Democrats, on the other hand, have largely avoided ugly primary fights in competitive races. The party united around Reps. Shelley Berkley of Nevada, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, all of whom will be on the general-election ballot for Senate seats. Hawaii's political machine, led by Sen. Daniel Inouye, has vocally supported Rep. Mazie Hirono, and she is likely to beat ex-Rep. Ed Case in that state’s primary on Saturday.

Consider this week’s primary elections in Missouri and Washington. Republicans in the Show-Me State were torn between Brunner and Steelman, while all sides agreed Rep. Todd Akin would be the weakest candidate to emerge from the field. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill ran a clever ad that masqueraded as an attack but emphasized Akin’s appeal among conservatives by pointing out that he opposed big government, and the weakest candidate indeed snuck through. 

In Washington state, Democrats worried the wrong candidate might allow a Republican to steal an open House seat north of Seattle. The entire party establishment waded into the primary on behalf of the more centrist candidate, Suzan DelBene, even though a prominent liberal, Darcy Burner, was already in the race. On Tuesday, DelBene won the right to advance to the November ballot by a wide margin.

To be sure, there are exceptions: Former Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel both skated through their primaries. Arizona's Rep. Jeff Flake and Florida's Rep. Connie Mack are likely to win their primaries easily. And several establishment-backed Democratic candidates for Congress have lost primaries in states like California and Illinois.

But a pattern is emerging in which Republicans tagged as the establishment favorites get tea party targets on their backs. That’s an indication of the ongoing battle for control of the Republican Party, its identity, and its direction in the future.

This isn’t the first time some party-backed Republicans have had trouble winning primaries. GOP strategists still shake their heads when they recall Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and Christine O'Donnell — candidates who beat establishment favorites in 2010 and probably cost the party Senate seats in Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware, respectively.

Being an outsider doesn’t doom a candidate to defeat in the general election, however. The growing caucus of outsider conservatives that includes Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Mike Lee of Utah is full of insurgents who beat party-favored candidates in Republican primaries, then won their general elections. One can even trace the Republican primary electorate’s preference for outsider candidates to 2006, when an unknown mayor of a small town called Wasilla beat an incumbent governor in Alaska’s Republican primary.

Democrats are far more likely to clear primaries or to use establishment backing as a positive. In the last 20 years, only three incumbent Democrats — Alan Dixon of Illinois, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — have lost their primaries, all after serious ideological splits with their bases. Dixon voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court; Lieberman was a vocal supporter of the war in Iraq; and Specter was running his first campaign as a Democrat after serving as a Republican for decades.

What to make of the two sides’ very different relationships with the Washington elite? Are Democrats more accepting of authority and centralized control? Are Republicans so intent on maintaining individual liberty that they see even internal party politics as a threat?

The real answer probably lies in the Republican primary electorate’s collective memory. Part of the disdain for its own establishment can be explained as a backlash against George W. Bush’s years in office. Conservatives, especially, were furious at the spending increases under the Bush administration. Now, the tea party’s antispending zeal is driving Republican primaries.

The GOP’s electoral success in 2010 put an end to any speculation that they were spiraling toward extinction. But that doesn’t mean Republicans aren’t evolving. In fact, the party that emerges from this period of politically violent introspection is likely to be dramatically different from the party Bush led last decade.

The outsider mantle is now more valuable in a Republican primary than any benefits the party’s establishment can bestow. That doesn’t necessarily hurt the party: Cruz will win this November, and Akin is still polling ahead of McCaskill. But it’s sure to make life more complicated for the party leadership once those outsiders come to Washington, D.C.