In recent Senate races, Specter beat back a Club-supported primary challenge from Toomey and won in November despite conservative defections to Constitution Party candidate Jim Clymer. In 2006, Lincoln Chafee similarly repelled Club-endorsed Steve Laffey and lost the general election despite winning 94 percent of self-described Republicans. In New Mexico’s open Senate seat in 2008, the Club favored conservative Congressman Steve Pearce over fellow Rep. Heather Wilson. Pearce got pasted in November but Wilson didn’t poll any better and barely hung on to her own House seat in 2006 by just 861 votes. ~Jim Antle
Jim’s article makes a number of good points, and he is correct that one cannot lay most of the GOP’s woes at the door of interest groups, such as Club for Growth, that promote conservative challengers against Republican incumbents. However, for the Club’s strategy to make sense on their own terms, they need to be able to show not only that they are not consistently doing harm to the electoral fortunes of the GOP, but also that they are helping to get the most conservative candidates elected to office. On those occasions when their challengers have knocked off incumbents, they have not had any general election victories, and in at least one case, the MD-01 race, the primary defeat for Gilchrest all but ensured that the non-incumbent Republican primary victor would lose in the fall during an already difficult year for the party. Perhaps the Club can explain why having one less semi-reliable Republican vote is a better outcome.
For the Club’s approach to make sense, there would need to be some evidence that Steve Laffey, for example, was as or more electable than Chafee, but in a particularly brutal year such as 2006 Chafee’s incumbency was probably the only thing that kept the race competitive, and it still wasn’t enough. For the Laffey challenge to make sense against the backdrop of the 2006 slaughter, one would need to make the argument that Laffey stood a better chance of resisting the wave, when even Chafee, whose positions on many issues were indistinguishable from the Democratic candidate’s, was unable to survive. If one could not make that argument, targeting Chafee doesn’t seem to make much sense at all, regardless of how viscerally satisfying it might be to campaign against a liberal Republican.
In elections for open seats, such as the New Mexico Senate race, it is harder to blame the Club for electoral defeats. Certainly, no Republican was going to win statewide office in a year when Obama won 57% of the vote in New Mexico. (Full disclosure: I voted for Pearce.) However, the fate of Pearce offers a warning to Toomey and his supporters: states that lean heavily Democratic at all levels of voting, as Pennsylvania now does, are unusually poor places to test the electoral viability of a Club for Growth-approved Republican. Unmentioned in Jim’s article is the collateral damage from the race to replace Domenici: both Republican House incumbents vacated their seats to run for the nomination and both House seats were lost in the fall. Arguably, New Mexico was so rapidly turning blue that it wouldn’t have mattered whether Pearce and Wilson stayed in their seats, but at least Pearce was more aligned with his district and stood a decent chance of winning re-election despite the tilt to the Democrats. Perhaps if Pearce had not been encouraged in his Senate aspirations, the Republicans would still have another seat in the House.
The problem with the Club’s approach is not necessarily its goal of targeting moderate incumbents, which can make sense and be perfectly appropriate if these representatives consistently ignore their constituents’ views, but it is instead the Club’s awe-inspiring lack of any sense of timing or awareness of the political mood of the states where they are backing their challengers. For good or ill, the Club specializes in recruiting true-believing free traders and anti-spending enthusiasts, and at the moment I can think of few worse places to run such a candidate than Pennsylvania in a recession. Nominating Toomey in 2004 would have made sense given the generally better position of Republicans nationwide, and had Santorum backed Toomey then he would have received less grief from pro-lifers in 2006 and might have done a little better himself. However, to correct the blunder of ’04 by putting Toomey in a position to lose a seat in 2010 that Specter might not hold anyway will give the Democratic majority another reliable vote, and it will create a convenient narrative that will be exploited to the nth degree by precisely the moderate reformer types Toomey et al. oppose, who will cite Toomey’s defeat as proof that the Club for Growth is a largely destructive force in the GOP coalition. It is precisely those who tend to sympathize more with the Club for Growth and the kinds of candidates it recruits that need to raise the alarm about the political cluelessness of the Club’s approach to elections, but this is not happening.