All across the country, Republicans are fantasizing about a gigantic electoral tide that will sweep out deeply entrenched Democratic incumbents this November. In their telling, this deep-red surge will be so forceful as to dislodge even legislators who don’t look vulnerable now, securing GOP control of both houses of Congress.
But could this scenario really come to pass? That will depend, in part, on what type of Republican Party the Democrats are running against in the fall.
Hence the importance of this year's Republican civil war. In a string of GOP primary elections stretching from now until September, the future ideological composition of the elephant party hangs in the balance. Many of these primaries pit self-consciously hard-core conservatives, often aligned with the Tea Party movement, against “establishment” candidates—some who are incumbents, and some who are simply vulnerable to being labeled “RINOs” or “squishes” for expressing insufficiently ferocious conservative views.
Below is your guide to this year's most important ideologically-freighted GOP primaries and their consequences. Confining ourselves just to statewide races, let's take them in chronological order:
TEXAS, MARCH 2: Today's showdown is in Texas, where “establishment” Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is challenging conservative incumbent Governor Rick Perry. Perry, who won only 39 percent of the vote in a four-candidate race in 2006, spent much of the last year cozying up to Tea Party activists and occasionally going over the brink into talk of secession. He seemed to have the race against the Washington-tainted Hutchinson well in hand, until a third GOP candidate, libertarian/Tea Party favorite Debra Medina, started to surge in the polls early this year.
Medina's candidacy once threatened to knock Perry into a runoff or even displace Hutchison from the second spot. But then Medina went on the Glenn Beck Program and expressed openness to the possibility that the federal government was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Still, it’s not clear Perry will clear 50 percent. An expensive and potentially divisive runoff would weaken him against the Democratic candidate, Houston Mayor Bill White, who looks quite competitive in early polling.
INDIANA, MAY 4: In the Hoosier State, right-wingers are flaying each other. Former Senator Dan Coats, a relatively conservative figure with strong “establishment” support, faces three even more conservative rivals in the race to succeed Evan Bayh. Coats is a longtime favorite of religious conservatives and an early member of the evangelical conservative network which author Jeff Sharlet dubs "The Family." He's secured early endorsements from D.C.-based conservative leaders Mike Pence and James Bopp (an RNC member who authored both the “Socialist Democrat Party” and “litmus test” resolutions). But his Beltway support has created a backlash in Indiana, and some Second Amendment fans recall that Coats voted for the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban. Coats is also smarting from revelations that he’s been registered to vote in Virginia since leaving the Senate, and working in Washington as a lobbyist for banks, equity firms, and even foreign governments (his firm represented—yikes—Yemen).
With the vote coming so soon, hard-core conservatives probably won’t have time to unite behind an alternative; some favor Tea Party-oriented state senator Marlin Stutzman, while others are sticking with a old-timey right-wing warhorse, former Representative John Hostetler. But if they do, and Coats loses, it will probably spur a headlong national panic among “establishment” Republicans, even well-credentialed conservatives who haven’t quite joined the tea partiers. Indiana Democrats have managed to recruit a strong Senate nominee in Congressman Brad Ellsworth, who might hold onto Bayh’s Senate seat.
UTAH, MAY 8: Utah Senator Bob Bennett, the bipartisan dealmaker, is in trouble. He voted for TARP, he has been a high-visibility user of earmarks, and, worse yet, he co-sponsored a universal health-reform bill with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. So right-wingers want his head. Bennett's defeat has become an obsession of influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson of Red State, and the Club for Growth, the big bully of economic conservatism, has attacked Newt Gingrich for speaking on his behalf.
Bennett's first test will come on May 8, when delegates to Utah's state GOP convention will vote on a Senate nominee. If he fails to get 60 percent, he’ll be pushed into a June 22 primary. Bennett faces three potentially credible right-wing challengers, but the “comer” seems to be Mike Lee, a former law clerk to Justice Samuel Alito, who has been endorsed by Dick Armey’s powerful FreedomWorks organization. Since this is Utah, there is no Democrat in sight who is strong enough to exploit such a right-wing "purge." Bennett's defeat would only make the Republican Party more conservative, and provide another object lesson to any GOP-er thinking about cosponsoring major legislation with a Democrat.
KENTUCKY, MAY 18: Kentuckians will choose a nominee to replace crotchety conservative Senator Jim Bunning, who, as of this writing, has succeeded in temporarily killing unemployment insurance and COBRA health care benefits in order to protest federal spending. This Republican primary matches conservative Secretary of State Trey Grayson against Rand (son of Ron) Paul. Paul has surprised Grayson’s establishment allies—a list that includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—by surging to a sizable lead. A conspiracy theory-addled ophthalmologist with no political experience, Paul rivals Florida’s Marco Rubio as a Tea Party favorite—which is why Grayson decided to go after him from the right, hitting Paul for wavering on the need for federal action to ban abortion. But Rand has obtained cover on the social conservative front from a champion of anti-abortion politics, Sarah Palin, who endorsed Rand last month. The upshot for Democrats is that one of their candidates, Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo or Attorney General Jack Conway, could have a decent shot at taking over a Republican seat.
IOWA, JUNE 8: This gubernatorial primary has implications for 2012. The big question is whether social conservative hardliner Bob Vander Plaats—who was Mike Huckabee's Iowa campaign chairman in 2008—can upset former Governor Terry Branstad, a venerable figure who led the state for 16 years before retiring in 1998 (and who has surrounded himself with Mitt Romney acolytes). Branstad, who has a big lead in early general election polls against incumbent Democrat Chet Culver, is no favorite of the right. One leading conservative group, the Iowa Family Policy Center, has pledged to sit out the general election if Branstad is the nominee. The Democrats' candidate, Chet Culver, is in deep trouble if Branstad wins; but he's running even or ahead of Vander Plaats in the polls.
ARIZONA, AUGUST 24: Former congressman and talk show host J.D. Hayworth is threatening John McCain, a pariah to many conservatives for championing of immigration reform, among other sins dating back to 2000. (McCain recently gave Hayworth a gift by claiming he had been “misled” by Bush administration officials about the basic purpose of TARP funds in 2008. Not a terribly credible assertion, and it recalls George Romney’s famously self-destructive statement that he was “brainwashed” into supporting the Vietnam War.) McCain will probably survive, given his longstanding popularity in Arizona and help from Sarah Palin. But there's a wild card: If attorneys for the state Republican Party succeed in overturning Arizona’s open primary law, McCain could go down, providing a graphic illustration of the GOP’s rightward trend since 2008.
FLORIDA, AUGUST 24: McCain’s buddy, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, is sinking like a stone. He's trailing national conservative superstar Marco Rubio in recent polls, with the trend lines pointing straight down. Conservatives aligned with state's real power, Jeb Bush, never liked Crist. But he went from “squish” to “enemy” last year by supporting Obama's economic stimulus, instead of attacking it and pocketing the cash. Crist, though, is benefiting from reports that Rubio allegedly used a state party credit card for personal purchases. But he’s probably toast, just like his famously tanned hide.
NEW HAMPSHIRE, SEPTEMBER 14: In New Hampshire, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, a National Republican Senatorial Committee recruit of indistinct ideological character, will battle “true conservative” Ovide Lamontagne for the nomination to succeed retiring Senator Judd Gregg. An early poll put Lamontagne within nine points of Ayotte. If Lamontagne wins, he may lose to Democratic Representative Paul Hodes, who polls quite well in contrast.
In sum, the Democrats could well benefit from conservative victories in several of this year's GOP primaries. But the larger impact of such purges may occur after November 2. By 2012, the economy will likely have improved and turnout patterns will be much more favorable to Democrats. Republicans, on the other hand, would be even more radical than they are today. At that point, an unimpressive Republican presidential field could become fatally weak if the nominating process is dominated by a herd of elephants stampeding to the right.