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Another defeat in the race for president has led to the inevitable round of soul-searching for the Republican Party. This time — unlike, say, in the aftermaths of the defeats of 1964 and 1976 — it is less clear how to get the GOP out of its rut.
In the past 60 years, the great Republican battles were about ideology — Dwight Eisenhower vs. Robert Taft in 1952, Barry Goldwater vs. Nelson Rockefeller in 1964, Gerald Ford vs. Ronald Reagan in 1976. This time? This time seems to be more about tactics and winning. And who should be deciding what it takes to win. Not a fight that's easy to get a handle on.
The GOP survived its ideological clash of 1952; Eisenhower not only won the nomination but the election in November as well. And while many movement conservatives were left to stew for the eight years of Ike's term, it was all and all considered a good time for Republicans.
Not so after the defeats of '64 and '76. Conservatives won the battle at the '64 convention but lost the war in a crushing November landslide. Similarly, moderates triumphed at the '76 convention but their candidate lost the general election in the fall. Each defeat led to serious soul-searching for the party. Was Goldwater too conservative? Was Ford too moderate? Whatever the answers, the Republicans obviously found what they were looking for; in each occasion, they captured the White House the next chance they got.
Republicans find themselves once again in a situation of uncertainty. They have lost two consecutive presidential elections (and the popular vote in five of the last six). Last year's loss was especially bitter, because it was one they were convinced they would win.
And so, once again, Republicans are pointing fingers at each other. As with the Goldwater and Ford defeats, there are complaints about the performance of their presidential nominee, this time Mitt Romney. One difference this time: unlike 1964 or even 1976, there really isn't a viable "moderate" wing of the party any more. It's now a choice of "establishment conservative" and "movement (or Tea Party) conservative."
Another difference: the battle is no longer monopolized by conversations over the presidential nominees. It's about candidates for Congress as well.
That was evidenced by the rise of the Tea Party in 2009. Ostensibly designed to fight President Obama's initiatives and take on Democrats, the Tea Party movement also focused its ire on the Republican establishment and its alleged willingness to go along with the status quo. Incensed over the mainstream's support for suspect GOP candidates like Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter and Florida's Charlie Crist in 2010, Tea Party activists worked hard for their respective opponents in the GOP primary, Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio, both outsiders. Such action forced both Specter and Crist to leave the party; Toomey and Rubio, meanwhile, went on to win their Senate races. (Conservatives that year also took on Sen. Robert Bennett in Utah, dumping him in favor of Mike Lee, and came up with Ted Cruz in 2012, who beat establishment choice David Dewhurst in the primary and cruzed to victory in November.)
The Right point to those examples of how strong conservatives can knock off establishment GOP candidates and still win the seat.
But there's also the risk that these conservatives will alienate centrist and independent voters in the general election and lose seats the party should have won. That's what happened in several instances in 2010, such as Delaware, where Christine O'Donnell rode solid Tea Party support to knocking off Mike Castle in the primary only to be humiliated in November by Democrat Chris Coons, and in Nevada, where primary winner Sharron Angle was deemed too far to the right to unseat a vulnerable Sen. Harry Reid in the general. In 2012, conservative Richard Mourdock trounced six-term moderate GOP incumbent Dick Lugar in the primary, only to lose the seat to the Democrats in the fall. Democrat Claire McCaskill was thought to be living on borrowed time in Missouri, but she cruised to re-election once the GOP nominated Todd Akin.
So what are we supposed to deduce from all this?
American Crossroads has a plan. The Karl Rove-led group is behind the newly-formed Conservative Victory Project, designed to support strong conservatives who can win in November. In a front-page New York Times article last Sunday, Crossroads President Steven Law said the impetus for the project was that Republicans had "blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected."
But what does that mean? Certainly, O'Donnell was never going to win a general election in Delaware. Angle was considered too unyielding to win statewide in Nevada. But what about the others often mentioned? Until they self-destructed over dumb comments about rape, Mourdock and even Akin each had decent chances of winning. They weren't necessarily the wrong candidates selected in the primaries. At least they weren't considered as such at first.
And if electability is the issue, what to make of candidates such as Tommy Thompson (Wisc.), Rick Berg (N.D.), Heather Wilson (N.M.), George Allen (Va.), Linda Lingle (Haw.) and Denny Rehberg (Mont.)? Not a right-wing fringe candidate in the bunch. Not a one talked about "legitimate rape" or "women's bodies shutting down pregnancies from rape." All were selected because of their alleged "electability." All lost to their Democratic opponents.
And speaking of electability, wasn't that the argument Romney used in his appeal to Republican voters? Other than North Carolina, he lost every swing/battleground state.
Anyway, it's still not clear what Rove and Co. intend in upcoming 2014 Senate contests. Polls in Iowa show Rep. Tom Latham a much stronger general election candidate than Rep. Steve King, but GOP primary polls have King the clear leader. In Georgia, where Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) is leaving, Democrats are salivating at the thought of running against Rep. Paul Broun (R), who has a history of making controversial statements. Would the Conservative Victory Project go into Iowa and Georgia to stop King and Broun? And what do you think the reaction from large-C conservative groups would be?
Actually, you don't have to wonder what they think of Rove's plan. Slate's John Dickerson already has rounded up some reactions:
"'In 2012, they [American Crossroads] spent hundreds of millions of rich donors' money and had jack to show for it,' wrote RedState's Erik Erickson. Town Hall's Terry Jeffrey cataloged every conservative sin of the Bush administration in a piece titled 'Karl Rove is Not a Conservative.' Influential conservative radio host Mark Levin referred to him [Rove] as 'doughboy' and levied a series of charming attacks, including a critique of Rove's penmanship."
But circular firing squads are not unusual for a party that just suffered a presidential defeat.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told an RNC meeting in Charlotte last month that the GOP needed to "stop being the stupid party." And, shocking no one, Donald Trump immediately weighed in on what is stupid. The other night, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly quoted Trump calling Jindal "stupid" for using the word "stupid," saying it gave the Democrats a talking point. O'Reilly made it clear that Jindal vs. Trump was a true and legitimate test of where the party should be heading.
Ah yes, Donald Trump. The same Donald Trump who Tweeted the following on election night (hat tip to the folks at Americablog):
"This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!"
"Let's fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us."
"We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!"
It remains to be seen if adding Trump to the mix will help the GOP solve its problems. At the very least, his inclusion is not likely to remind anyone of the party's classic struggles of the past, such as Rocky and Goldwater. Maybe more like Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Time for one question this week:
Q: With ex-Sen. Scott Brown mulling another race for the Senate, I wonder how often have states been represented by two senators who ran against each other — as would happen if Brown were to win John Kerry's seat? I can only think of one example — John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum, who ran against each other in a Democratic primary and both subsequently ended up in the Senate. Do you know of any others? — Philip Lentz, New York, N.Y.
A: Your question arrived only hours before Brown, who lost to Elizabeth Warren last year, said he wouldn't run in this year's special Massachusetts Senate election. And your note was the inspiration behind last week's trivia question during the Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. But more of that later.
Ohio's Glenn v. Metzenbaum is a classic example. They actually ran against each other twice before they got to serve together in the Senate. Metzenbaum beat Glenn in the 1970 Democratic primary (but went on to lose the general election). Four years later, after Metzenbaum was appointed to the Senate to fill a vacancy, Glenn got revenge and upset him in the primary and went on to serve four terms in the Senate. Metzenbaum himself won a Senate seat in 1976 and thus served with Glenn from 1977 until Metz retired after 1994.
Interestingly, the person who succeeded Metzenbaum that year, Mike DeWine, was the unsuccessful GOP opponent to Glenn in '92. So that's another example of former foes serving together in the Senate.
Here are the other examples I thought of:
In Indiana, Dick Lugar lost to Birch Bayh in 1974 but they went on to serve together from 1977, after Lugar won the other Senate seat, until 1980, when Bayh was defeated by Dan Quayle;
in Nebraska, Ben Nelson lost to Chuck Hagel (remember him?) in 1996 but they served together from 2001, after Nelson won the other seat, until 2008, when Hagel retired;
in Nevada, John Ensign (remember him?) lost to Harry Reid in 1998 but they served together from 2001, after Ensign won the other seat, until 2011, when he resigned;
in New York, James Buckley was the unsuccessful Conservative Party nominee against Jacob Javits in 1968; two years later, Buckley won the other seat, again as a Conservative, and served together with Javits until Buckley was ousted after one term in 1976;
in Oregon, Gordon Smith lost to Ron Wyden in a special 1996 election; later in the year, Smith won the other seat and they served together until Smith's defeat in 2008;
in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter lost to John Heinz in the 1976 GOP primary but they served together from 1981, after Specter won the other seat, until 1991, when Heinz died;
in Rhode Island, John Chafee lost to Claiborne Pell in 1972 but they served together from 1976, after Chafee won the other seat, until 1996, when Pell retired;
in Texas, Phil Gramm lost to Lloyd Bentsen in the 1976 Dem primary but they served together from 1985, after Gramm — by then a Republican — won the other seat, until 1993, when Bentsen resigned to join the Clinton cabinet;
in Washington, Slade Gorton lost his Senate seat to Brock Adams but they served together from 1989, after Gorton won the other seat, until 1992, when Adams retired;
and in Wyoming, John Barrasso lost to Mike Enzi in the 1996 GOP primary but they have served together since 2007, when Barrasso was appointed to the other seat to fill a vacancy.
So far, all well and good. And when David from Gillette, Wyoming called in with Barrasso and Enzi as the answer to my question — "who are the most recent senators to serve together after they ran against each other?" — he was declared the correct answer (and the winner of the incredibly valuable Junkie t-shirt and button).
But not so fast. I was thinking of people who ran against each other FOR SENATOR ONLY. But that's not what my question asked. And that was my mistake. Kari Chisholm (@karichisholm) of Portland, Ore., sent me this note on Twitter, correcting me: " In 2006, Brian Schatz placed sixth in the HI-02 congressional race won by Mazie Hirono."
And he's right. In 2006, Hirono won the House seat vacated by Ed Case (D) when he ran for the Senate. In the Democratic primary, Hirono, then the state's lt. gov., narrowly defeated Colleen Hanabusa, a state senator, 21.8-21.1 percent, a margin of 844 votes. Schatz, a state rep., finished sixth with 7.4 percent.
And that means that "Jake" from Battle Creek, Mich. — who called in with that answer — is owed a t-shirt and a button. He had the correct answer. Jake, whoever you are, contact me with your particulars.
And (sigh) there's one more example. Anduin McElroy of Altus, Okla., reminds me that North Dakota Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven "also ran against each other — he beat her for governor in 2000." She is correct. Sadly, because Anduin never called in with the answer, she doesn't get the t-shirt and button prize. Just honorable mention. But she's right. I stand corrected.
Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's show focused on Scott Brown's decision not to pursue another Senate campaign in Massachusetts, the new zinger ad aimed at potential Kentucky Senate candidate Ashley Judd, and a discussion about choosing sides in GOP primaries with Jonathan Collegio, the communications director for Karl Rove's American Crossroads group. You can listen to the segment here:
Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me.
By the way, both shows (Wednesday's Junkie and Thursday's podcast) referred to the anti-Ashley Judd ad, which is an on-line only offering. It's brutal but effective ... so effective that it may help the actress decide pretty quickly if she really wants to challenge Sen. Mitch McConnell after all. Here's the ad, courtesy of YouTube:
And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a Political Junkie T-shirt but also a 3-1/2-inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??
ON THE CALENDAR:
Feb. 12 — Obama State of the Union message.
Feb. 26 — Special primary in Illinois' 2nd CD to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), who resigned. (General election: April 9)
March 19 — Special primary in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District to replace Tim Scott (R), who was appointed to the Senate.
April 2 — Runoff in S.C. 01. (General election: May 7.)
April 30 — Special Massachusetts Senate primary.
June 4 — Special election in Missouri's 8th CD to replace Jo Ann Emerson (R), who resigned.
June 25 — Special Senate election in Massachusetts to replace John Kerry, who is now secretary of state.
Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********
This day in campaign history: Following disappointing third-place finishes in Tennessee and Virginia, Wesley Clark ends his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Clark, a retired four-star general who back in a September CNN-USA Today Gallup Poll led not only the Democratic field but President George W. Bush as well, won only one contest, the primary in Oklahoma on Feb. 3. He becomes the fifth Democrat to drop out of the race (Feb. 11, 2004).
Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: email@example.com