JACK SPENCER: These false pretenses should be put to rest
If current polling is a forecast of the election results, establishment Republicans have no grounds for claiming the candidates they prefer are any better at winning general elections than those that might emerge from the conservative base.
In the U.S. Senate race, former GOP Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land continues to trail Democratic Congressman Gary Peters by nearly 10 percentage points in the polls. Unless something changes drastically in the final couple of weeks leading up to the election, Peters will win it in a walk.
That would mark the fifth consecutive Michigan U.S. Senate race in which the Republicans have failed miserably at finding a candidate who could mount a competitive campaign. Michigan’s previous four U.S. Senate races featured incumbent Democrats protecting their seats. Briefly in 2006 and 2012 it looked like there would be a chance to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow but those chances turned out to be mirages.
This year, however, the cards seemed to be stacked more in the GOP’s favor. Due to the retirement of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, his seat is open and, in a nonpresidential year, the Republicans should have at least been able to take a decent shot at it.
Though Peters winning this year is not an absolute certainty, at this juncture it must be considered a very high probability. Only the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass for a touchdown in the final seconds of a football game could give Land a come-from-behind victory. Perhaps desperate TV and Internet ads featuring Peters morphing into President Barack Obama, tied vaguely to topical issues like ISIS and Ebola could still give Land a slim long shot chance.
Land faced virtually no competition in becoming the Republican candidate for U.S Senate. There was no serious challenge from Tea Party activists. Early in the process, other potential candidates interested in running were discouraged from stepping in. Some might have fared better than Land, but not necessarily because they were either more or less conservative.
The issue in this particular case is not whether a candidate leans conservative or moderate. It is the repeated establishment Republican mantra that candidates from the right-wing of their party hurt the ticket and diminish the chances of victory. To put it bluntly, when it comes to selecting candidates, their track record simply does not justify such an assertion.
Tea Party activist candidate Clark Durant ran against former Congressman Pete Hoekstra in the race to become Michigan’s 2012 GOP U.S. Senate candidate. Hoekstra, who was clearly the establishment candidate, won the nomination and was then promptly crushed by about 20 percentage points by Stabenow.
Considering the strong showing the Democrats had in Michigan in 2012, it is doubtful Durant could have done much better than Hoekstra, but he could hardly have done any worse. The point is that if Durant had been the GOP candidate and suffered such a huge defeat, establishment Republicans would have insisted it was proof that candidates who lean too far to the right get walloped. But when the shoe is on the other foot and their own candidate selections lose big, establishment Republicans just shrug it off.
Few would argue that, like it or not, there is more to being a strong candidate than just whether a person is far-right, moderate, liberal or some niche in between. Communication skills and just plain likability counts for much — as do factors beyond the control of the candidates, such as unexpected issues arising and whether it is a particularly good year for one major political party or the other.
There is no magical mix of ingredients that automatically synthesizes into a winning candidate. Human judgment and the antennas of the voters are the only instruments sensitive enough to take the measure and make the call.
In early 1980 it was said that Ronald Reagan was “too far to the right” to win. In 2008 it was said that Barack Obama was “too far to the left” to win. When an establishment Republican insists a prospective candidate is too far right to have a chance, the context of electability is no more than camouflage. All they are really doing is revealing that their own political tastes lie to the left of that prospective candidate; it is nothing less than that and most certainly it is nothing more.
Many conservatives are often no less irrational about this subject than moderates tend to be. For example, an axe that continues to be ground too finely by those on the right is the choice of Mitt Romney as the GOP presidential candidate in 2012.
Sure, Romney did not wear conservative principles comfortably, virtually ignored the need to speak of freedom and liberty, and barely mentioned Obamacare. But to hear many on the political right talk, one would think Romney was picked as the Republican nominee on a dark night in a smoke-filled room.
Romney won the GOP nomination by winning primaries -— and he won those primaries because no outstanding alternative candidate came out to challenge him. Elections are often described as horse races, and the comparison can be a good one. Horses that remain in the barn never win.
Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.