Republicans Are Running Scared--From Each Other

Josh Kraushaar

On paper, 2014 is shaping up to be a fruitful election cycle for Senate Republicans. Democrats are defending more seats again than Republicans; presidential second terms often feature midterm trouble; and, most important, talented GOP recruits are coming out of the woodwork, a development that didn’t occur in 2012.

But there’s a flip side to the reason why so many Republicans are jumping into campaigns so early, and it’s not entirely encouraging for the party. The early timing of the recruits’ decisions is partly designed to head off potential primary challenges, which were fast and furious over the last two election cycles and show no sign of abating anytime soon. Jumping in early gives candidates a chance to mobilize support, raise money to fend off opposition, and scare off others from running.

The three highly touted Senate Republican recruits who announced candidacies or exploratory committees over the last month have reason to worry about the primary process: Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds and Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell are all grade-A recruits with strong odds of defeating sitting Democratic senators. But all of them also have disappointed elements of the conservative base and could face credible primary opponents. 

Of the three, Capito drew the quickest and most outspoken criticism from the right, led by the antitax Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund, over her support for earmarks and spending measures. Democrats, meanwhile, are arguing that expected low turnout and her positions on abortion could spell trouble for her in the primary race. Of the three recruits, however, Capito is in the strongest shape. One of the reasons GOP primaries in West Virginia are low turnout is because there’s not much of a state party or a bench of qualified candidates. Businessman John Raese, despite his money, has no base of support.

Meanwhile, West Virginia’s Republican electorate couldn’t be any more different than the Club for Growth’s donor base, and it is unlikely to turn on a favorite daughter. Plus, abortion has rarely been the driving force behind primary challenges to establishment Republicans. Despite the conservative bluster directed at this race, Capito looks well positioned to avoid a tough nomination fight.

The situation in South Dakota--at least on paper--could be a little more precarious for the early favorite. Rounds, a former governor, disappointed fiscal conservatives by proposing alcohol and cigarette sin taxes early in his term; the alcohol tax didn't pass through the state legislature.  He’s a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center--an asset for governing, but the type of red flag that primary opponents would salivate over. Perhaps because he doesn’t have an easily tallied congressional scorecard for outside groups to pick apart, he’s not seen as a top target.  But he would seem to be a more natural target for the Club for Growth than Capito, even though the group has barely made noise about this race.  South Dakota has a deeper bench of conservatives; Rep. Kristi Noem is a rising star within the party, although she’s unlikely to run.

To his credit, Rounds left office with high approval ratings and he’s a formidable candidate against Sen. Tim Johnson, who’s rumored to be considering retirement. But if the tea party movement is as active as it was in 2010 and 2012, Rounds would be a nonincumbent target.

In Alaska, Treadwell formed an exploratory committee and looks like the early favorite to challenge Sen. Mark Begich. But tea party favorite Joe Miller, who ousted Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the state’s 2010 primary, is still a factor in the race, and he would give Republicans headaches if he jumps in. 

Over the last two election cycles, the GOP lost four winnable seats--Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, and Nevada--thanks to very flawed, too-conservative candidates emerging from the nomination process. The tea party isn’t solely to blame; it’s the complete lack of communication between the party establishment and the grassroots that allows serially weak candidates to emerge. Despite the lessons that should have been apparent from those mishaps, outside groups are only looking for more scalps, and the establishment is just beginning to engage. 

For an illustration of the internal Republican turmoil, consider Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. He announced his reelection bid last weekend, during the height of holiday season, a time when people were thinking about shopping, not campaigning. Alexander, in his statement, made sure to note that he has the backing of every GOP bigwig in the state, conservative and establishment alike. It’s a telltale sign that Alexander is already anticipating challenges for winning a third term--in a state where Democrats nominated an out-and-out racist in 2012.  He’s concerned about the primary, not the general election.

Democratic opportunities to exploit this intraparty division in 2014 look limited. Capito, Rounds, and Treadwell are running in deeply Republican states, and, despite risks, don’t face obvious primary threats. And all the senators at risk of losing primaries are in the South, where Republican advantages are significant and have only been growing during the Obama administration. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., already looks assured of facing a seasoned primary opponent, with former Secretary of State Karen Handel, Rep. Tom Price, and Rep. Paul Broun looking like the most logical candidates. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also could draw primary challengers, but both are in more-secure positions than Chambliss.

The type of Democrat who can win in the South is one who’s built up a moderate-to-conservative resume and therefore is able to expand traditional Democratic numbers among whites. In Georgia, Rep. John Barrow won in a solidly Republican district because of that background and a weak opponent. Just-defeated Rep. Ben Chandler might fit the bill against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. But they’re not many out there. (And, no, Ashley Judd isn’t a credible opponent in Kentucky, even if she raises millions of dollars.)

But lack of Democratic opposition doesn’t erase the fact that Republican incumbents across the country are running scared. Whether it’s from outside groups demanding ideological purity, the tainted party brand, or simply by losing touch with their constituents, it’s rare to be a Republican in solid political shape these days.  Capito, Rounds, and Treadwell are exactly the type of recruits who will help Senate Republicans pick up seats. But until the party resolves its internal conflicts, winning back the majority will be a challenging task.

CORRECTION: Rounds signed the state's restrictive abortion legislation into law; it was later overturned by voters in a referendum. In his first term, Rounds proposed both a cigarette and alcohol tax; only the cigarette tax passed through the legislature.