Republican Primary Voters Seem Determined to Nominate Candidates Who can Win
5/9/2014 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone
Results of Tuesday's primaries, particularly the victory of state House Speaker Thom Tillis in North Carolina's Republican Senate primary, are being hailed -- or decried -- as a victory for the Republican establishment over the Tea Party movement.
There's something to that. Tillis benefited from support from Karl Rove's American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and endorsements by Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.
In contrast, Sen. Rand Paul flew in on the day before the election to campaign for second-place finisher and fellow physician Greg Bannon, who was also endorsed by Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks. Mike Huckabee campaigned for the third-place candidate, minister Mark Harris.
Some conservative bloggers are making much of the fact that Tillis received less than a majority of the vote. But his 46 percent topped the 40 percent threshold to avoid a runoff in July. And his margin over Bannon, who won 27 percent of the vote, would be counted a solid victory in a state without runoffs.
Political reporters have described this race and other Republican primary contests as battles between national political players. But I think the more important thing is what the result tells us about the state of mind of Republican primary voters.
This year Republican voters seem more inclined than in 2010 and 2012 to vote for those who appear likely to be strong general election candidates and less inclined to vote for candidates who stand up on chairs and yell, "Hell no!"
Brannon made statements comparing food stamps to slavery and founded an organization with conspiracy theories on its website. Plenty of fodder for Democratic ads if he had won the nomination.
That doesn't mean that Republican voters have given up on conservatism and are content to vote for RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). Tillis could point to a solid conservative voting record in the legislature.
As Speaker of the North Carolina House, he led successful efforts to cut taxes and authorize charter schools.
The legislature controversially cut extended unemployment benefits -- a measure followed by the steepest decline in unemployment in any state.
Tillis concentrated his fire on incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and her deciding vote for Obamacare. He argued that the barrage of anti-Tillis ads and mailings by Hagan's campaign and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid showed that Democrats regarded him as the Republican most likely to win in November.
This is not to say that Republican voters are entirely pleased with incumbents. Two North Carolina incumbents beat challengers by relatively narrow margins.
In the second congressional district, Renee Elmers, attacked for supporting immigration measures, including legalization, won, 59 to 41 percent.
In the third congressional district, Walter Jones, attacked for dovish views on foreign policy, won, 51 to 45 percent.
And in Ohio's 14th congressional district, freshman David Joyce won, 55 to 45 percent. But House Speaker John Boehner got a solid 69 percent against multiple opponents in the Ohio eighth.
Republican primary voters seem to have passed through and out of a cycle that is apparent in both parties' core constituencies: In the last years of the second term of a party's president, the party's wingers grow restive.
They are disappointed that their side's president has not accomplished all they hoped and has compromised on what they believe are core principles.
Thus, after eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, Republican primary voters were pleased to reject likely general election winners in favor of seemingly more principled (and provocative) opponents.
This attitude may have cost Republicans Senate seats -- certainly in Delaware in 2010, arguably in Nevada and Colorado that year, and Indiana and Missouri in 2012.
Tea Party admirers point out, accurately, candidates who started off as insurgents -- Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz -- won solid victories and have injected needed new ideas and energy into the party.
Overall, Republican officeholders have internalized and acted on the Tea Party agenda. That's why the primary challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems likely to fail later this month.
Something similar is happening to Democrats in President Obama's sixth year in office: The left-wingers are getting restive.
Evidence includes the election of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the talk of an Elizabeth Warren presidential candidacy, billionaire Tom Steyer's $100 million crusade against the Keystone XL pipeline.
But left-wing Democrats aren't challenging many incumbents and establishment favorites -- yet. That could come if and when currently energized Republicans win the presidency.