The GOP’s botched bid for easy Senate pickups by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock have become Exhibit A and B an in the case for alleged overreach on the part of Tea Party insurgents, who have become a handicap to the national party by running extremists in the primaries who can’t win general elections (The Week has a good roundup here). Both candidates said stupid things that undermined their campaigns, perhaps fatally, which does offer a cautionary tale about running inexperienced candidates who are bad at articulating the majority pro-life position. Or maybe the lesson is to maintain the Tea Party’s customary, though oft-broken truce on social issues into campaign season (it should also be noted that Akin wasn’t the tea party favorite in the primaries).
At any rate, if the Tea Party is bad at picking candidates, the GOP establishment might be worse. In Wisconsin, former pro-Obamacare healthcare lobbyist Tommy Thompson made hamfisted pitches to the right but ultimately failed to beat Tammy Baldwin. Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, a socialist, should have been easily defeated, but wasn’t because babyface Josh Mandel was an awful candidate. Despite a heavy emphasis on Obama’s “war on coal,” Mandel won substantially fewer votes than even Mitt Romney. George Allen, still hamstrung by his “macaca” comment and coasting as the establishment favorite by virtue of his father’s Redskins money and promises to keep the Pentagon pork flowing, lost narrowly. It’s possible that electoral politics in the Old Dominion is so compromised by its status as the highest per-capita recipient of defense largesse that any Republican candidate has to campaign like a well-armed version of LBJ, but I’d like to think Virginians are still sympathetic to legitimate fiscal responsibility (full disclosure: I voted for Allen anyway). As candidates, neither Thompson, Allen, nor Mandel were very inspiring, and all three coasted to the nomination with the blessing of state parties.
Republicans looking for something to blame for Tuesday’s decisive losses can look to the elaborate and effective Obama machine, which won out in 2008. The electorate changed slightly since then, sure–if it had remained the same Romney would have won–but the Obama campaign planned for that shift. Both Ohio and Virginia were swing states with incredibly heavy ad spending and loads of visits from presidential candidates, so the top of the ticket undoubtedly had a big impact. At least in Virginia and Wisconsin, I still think a stronger candidate could have won. And as long as state parties continue to get behind candidates by default or a misguided sense that someone is next in line, competitive primary challenges will be healthy, even at the risk of getting stuck with inexperienced, gaffe-prone candidates.