Discouraged by repeatedly losing the White House, daunted by electoral demographics and branded by the more extreme elements of its base, the party out of power began its long journey out of the wilderness by focusing early resources on viable, moderate candidates and methodically executing smart campaigns.
We’re referring, of course, to the Democratic party of the 1980’s and 90’s. The playbook written by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) is being copied by establishment Republicans this year and if Tuesday night’s results are any indication, they may be on a similar path of wresting control from the party’s more passionate extremes.
After losing campaigns by Carter, Mondale and Dukakis, the DLC focused on candidate recruitment in key races, provided the political infrastructure and early financial support to push viable candidates through Democratic primaries and reshaped a party brand captured by the left to rebuild a party focused on middle America. The result was the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and a Democratic Party with national appeal.
This is precisely what the establishment arm of the GOP, the US Chamber of Commerce and allied political action committees like American Crossroads did Tuesday night. Tea Party challengers lost by wide margins in Kentucky, Georgia, Idaho and Oregon.
Combined with other establishment victories earlier this year, you have a GOP exerting more party control over its primary races than in 2010 and 2012, when Tea Party-fueled candidates arguably cost Republicans control of the Senate.
By taking Tea Party challengers seriously and engaging early. Establishment groups and donors poured money into their chosen candidates’ coffers, which enabled them to get their messages out early and effectively. Moderate, mainline surrogates such as Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and John McCain were deployed to campaign aggressively in battleground races. Aggressive messaging and rapid response media engagement staved off the firebrands’ attempts to define establishment candidates as they had done effectively in 2010 and 2012
We can look to the House race in Idaho’s second district as a prime example of this strategy. Mike Simpson, the establishment Republican incumbent was an early target of conservative groups like Club for Growth.
Over the course of the campaign, Simpson raised $1.9 million, compared to $781,000 raised by Tea Party challenger Bryan Smith. Outside groups spent over $2.2 million running ads in support of Simpson, while the Club for Growth threw in just $500,000 in ads for Smith before pulling out of the state in the weeks leading up to the primary.
This culminated in a 62%-38% win for Simpson in a race that was viewed early on as highly competitive.
What this pendulum swing back to the establishment means for the future of the Republican Party is unclear. What is clear is that party leadership has been able to regain some control over the primary process, bolstering support for candidates who have the best chance of winning in a general election. Republican primary voters appear to have responded.
But the true test of this national dynamic comes Tuesday June 3rd in California’s primary. While a great national focus by the national Republican establishment has focused on swing Senate races in an attempt to avert the disastrous election cycles that saw Republicans lose races because of inept fringe candidates that scared even conservative voters – California has largely been left to its own devices.
Only when polling showed tea party candidate Tim Donnelly ahead of businessman Neel Kashkari did national Republicans engage. Money is now beginning to be spent on Kashkari’s behalf and respected Republican elders from Mitt Romney to Pete Wilson and Condoleeza Rice have weighed in for him as well. Seeking to avoid a national disaster where California’s eccentric Republican candidate could dominate the election year narrative in swing states, the stops are being pulled to get a more reasoned viable candidate through the primary.
But with days drawing close and resources spending quickly the potential for the national GOP’s year-long strategy to center its tarnished national brand could be undermined by ignoring California for too long. A Kashkari victory could align perfectly with national Republican hopes of rebuilding a national party – a loss could undermine the entire national effort.
About Matt Rodriguez is a veteran Democratic strategist and a fellow at the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
About Michael Madrid is a Republican political consultant and a fellow at the Jesse M. Unhruh Institute of Politics at USC. He is a partner at GrassrootsLab, a political research and consulting firm.