Senate Republicans Tiptoe Around Activist Base

Reid Wilson

Republicans scheming to take back control of the Senate next year are walking a delicate line between the politically pragmatic decisions they need to make to win and an activist base that sees a nefarious, hidden agenda in Washington's meddling. And no one finds himself confronting those sometimes competing interests more than Jerry Moran, the Kansas Republican who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

In an interview on Sunday on CSPAN's Newsmakers, Moran sought to convey his organization's active involvement in recruiting, training and mentoring strong candidates for Democratic-held Senate seats, all while insisting Washington would stay away from picking favorites in key states.

"Generally, Americans don't like being told from Washington, D.C. much of anything, but certainly don't like being told who to vote for. And so we're turning this process, as best we can, we're encouraging this process to take place in states by people who come together and reach a conclusion that this is a candidate we all can support, and this is a candidate who can win a general election," Moran said. "We're not hands-off at all."

In recent years, Republicans have failed to take advantage of electoral opportunities to win Senate seats because of weak candidates, or candidates who become their own worst enemies. In at least six states over the last two election cycles -- Nevada, Colorado and Delaware in 2010, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota in 2012 -- Republican candidates have lost after making intemperate remarks that cost them with key segments of the electorate.

In at least five of those cases, excluding North Dakota, the Republicans who lost the general elections had won the GOP nomination by positioning themselves far to the right of their primary opponents. Had Republicans nominated more electable candidates, either ideologically or temperamentally, the party would likely be in a stronger position today.

It is no accident that Moran, who heads the NRSC during a year in which many more Democratic-held seats are up for re-election than Republican-held seats, needs to lead his party to a six-seat pickup to regain control of the upper chamber.

"A candidate that can only win a Republican primary is of little or no value to me. A candidate has to win the general election and appeal broadly to the people in the state," he said Sunday.

But, Moran acknowledged, the NRSC sees little advantage in wading into primary contests with a heavy hand, dictating to state parties just which candidates they should nominate. Instead, Beltway interference would almost certainly backfire, he said.

"In many instances, if the Senate campaign committee said, 'This is the candidate,' there would be a reaction by others who say, 'Well, they're not going to tell us what to do. We're going to find our own candidate,'" Moran said.

National Republicans are already facing the possibility of trouble in two states where they should easily win back Democratic-held seats. In West Virginia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is seen as the strongest possible Republican candidate in a general election, though some conservative groups dislike her record on spending. In South Dakota, former Gov. Mike Rounds is the front-runner, though Rep. Kristi Noem is taking a serious look at running as well. On Sunday, Moran voiced support for both Capito and Rounds.

"We have a great confidence and faith in both announced candidates in West Virginia and South Dakota," Moran said. Even with contested primaries, Republicans are likely to win in both states; Democrats have failed, so far, to recruit top-tier candidates in either race.

Convincing the right candidates to run is a top priority for the national committee. But so far, Republicans haven't been able to entice their first choice candidates into races even in states where Democrats are potentially vulnerable. All seven statewide and federal officeholders said no to GOP entreaties to run for a seat being vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin in Iowa; no major Republican candidates are running for open seats in Michigan and Montana, or against Democratic incumbents in Minnesota, New Hampshire, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico and Virginia -- all either purple states or states that played host to close elections in 2008, the last time these seats were up.

And the specter of ugly primaries is rearing its head once again. This week, Joe Miller, the conservative Alaska activist who beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a Republican primary in 2010 before losing to Murkowski in the general election, said he would run against Sen. Mark Begich (D) this year. National Republicans would prefer Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who has formed an exploratory committee; most party strategists will confess privately they do not believe Miller can beat Begich.

In heavily Republican Georgia, three congressmen, a former Secretary of State and several other wealthy Republicans are running for retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss's seat. The prospect of a primary divided between so many candidates trying to portray themselves as the most conservative possible option, some Republicans worry, could give Democrats an opportunity to make a close race out of what should be a slam dunk.

At the moment, there is little national Republicans can do to avoid those contested primaries. Instead, Moran said, the national party will focus on recruiting top candidates in key states where no one, as of yet, carries the GOP standard.

"We're going to be emphatic in our efforts to encourage individual leaders within the state to coalesce around a great candidate," he said. The party, Moran said, is going through "a maturing process."