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Understanding a Mad, Mad Primary Season

Christine O’Donnell is not someone you’d expect to be a Republican nominee for a competitive U.S. Senate contest, particularly in the staid state of Delaware, and particularly as the choice of primary voters over Congressman Mike Castle, who up until yesterday had won twelve consecutive statewide races.

O’Donnell is a recent newcomer to Delaware and, since arriving, has managed to get into trouble with her student loans, her taxes, her mortgage, and her job. She also unsuccessfully sued a conservative organization for gender discrimination. In general, she’s the kind of person whom you’d expect Tea Party activists to excoriate for irresponsibility, not promote as a candidate for high office. But yesterday she beat Castle handily, becoming yet another exhibit of the extraordinary extent to which ideology has trumped every other factor in the 2010 Republican primary season.

Where does this leave us? Yesterday’s eight contests all but ended 2010’s primaries, and we're now able to step back and assess their overall political impact. The immediately obvious effect of this year's contests has been to move the GOP far, far to the right—not only via successful primary challenges that overthrew incumbents, but also because the remaining independent-minded Republicans, fearing for their careers, rushed headlong into Tea Party orthodoxy. Meanwhile, few Democratic incumbents lost, and few contested primaries followed any sort of ideological script.

The body count of establishment candidates who lost to right-wing challenges is pretty impressive, particularly in a year full of rich opportunities to win over independents and Democrats by running candidates who are attractively centrist.

The fallen include two incumbent senators: Robert Bennett of Utah (who didn’t even qualify to participate in the primary) and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Another purge victim was Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the GOP star who was driven to become an independent. There was Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who lost a gubernatorial primary; Florida gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum; Colorado Senate candidate Jane Norton and Colorado gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis; Delaware Senate candidate Mike Castle; Nevada Senate candidate Sue Lowden; Kentucky Senate candidate Trey Grayson; and California Senate candidate Tom Campbell. House incumbents like Bob Inglis of South Carolina lost for the sin of voting with the Bush administration in favor of TARP. Of course, many of these races involved extenuating circumstances, as in the South Carolina gubernatorial primary, where the candidate positioned furthest to the right—Nikki Haley—won in no small part because of a backlash against aggressive attacks on her character and ethnicity. But the sheer number of upsets from the right is stunning, especially as compared to the number of upsets pulled off by moderate Republicans, which amounted to one: Rick Snyder’s money-driven victory over a divided conservative field in the Michigan gubernatorial primary.

The roll of candidates who surrendered to the right-wing is in some ways even more impressive. Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk won against weak conservative opposition after repudiating his vote for climate-change legislation. Arizona Senator John McCain abandoned what was left of his own moderate voting record in the process of subduing J.D. Hayworth. California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman beat conservative challenger Steve Poizner by running an unbelievable number of ads attacking him as an abortion-rights supporter and tax-and-spend champ, and "just another liberal Sacramento politician," even as she talked tough on immigration. Whitman went so far that she's spent every moment since the primary trying to regain her centrist bona fides, and still hasn't recovered. Indeed, it’s difficult to identify any competitive Republican primary, even in areas where moderates have traditionally done well, in which every viable candidate did not aggressively brand him- or herself a "true conservative."

The role of the Tea Party movement in this rightward shift was significant, but it was not ubiquitous. And if, like me, you think the Tea Partiers are simply a mobilized bloc of conservative Republican voters, focusing on their role as if it were some sort of independent force is a chimera. What we have actually witnessed this year is the final victory in a Fifty Year War waged by the conservative movement for control of the Republican Party. The timing of this rightward lurch is remarkable, given that the usual practice of parties which have recently lost multiple elections is to “move to the center.” And, barring some miracle, an electoral triumph for this newly hard-right Republican Party will almost certainly render the transformation semi-permanent, confirming, as it will, the longstanding belief held by “movement conservatives” that excessive moderation—usually defined as any moderation—hurts Republicans politically.

The contrast with Democratic primaries is vivid. There were only two major left-leaning primary challenges to statewide incumbents, in Arkansas and Colorado, and they both failed. Neither of these challengers was a fire-breathing progressive. Left-wing challenges to House incumbents in California, Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma also failed; only in Florida was the contest close. In most of the country, Democrats united early behind their strongest general election candidate, and even where there were competitive statewide primaries—as in the Pennsylvania and Ohio Senate races and the Alabama, Minnesota, and Vermont gubernatorial races—ideological differences were relatively subdued. The closest thing to a “purge” was probably in Alabama, where Artur Davis chose to thumb his nose at his own electoral base, and faced the consequences. If there was a “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” it was more like a schoolyard tussle than a cage match.

You might think that this landscape is good for Democrats, leaving them better positioned for a general election in which non-ideologues will be crucial. And yet … there’s still the “enthusiasm gap,” evident in the extraordinary strength of Republican primary voting this year. As voter participation guru Curtis Gans pointed out earlier this month, based on the primaries that had been held as of August 28:

Republican turnout in their statewide primaries exceeded Democratic turnout in theirs by more than 4 million votes. The average percentage of eligible citizens who voted in Democratic primaries was the lowest ever. The average percentage of citizens who voted in the GOP statewide primaries was the highest since 1970.

You can attribute some of this GOP primary advantage to an abundance of competitive races, and some of it to the great ideological sorting-out that has eliminated the ancient Democratic advantage in self-identification among voters who don’t necessarily vote for “their” party in general elections.

But all in all, the events of this primary season confirm the picture of an exceptionally excited Republican Party that is moving to the ideological right as fast as is practicable.

The GOP may ultimately pay a price for going on this ideological bender. In 2010, there are races that Republicans could lose which less rabidly conservative candidates might have won—such as the Senate races in Nevada, Kentucky, and Delaware, plus the gubernatorial race in Florida. Many conservatives don’t seem to care. Influential RedState blogger Erik Erikson, even as he criticized Christine O’Donnell’s campaign in Delaware, summed up this attitude:

I’d rather see the Democrat get elected than see Mike Castle get elected. Seriously, I know many of you disagree with me, but if the majority depends on Mike Castle, to hell with the majority.

In the long run, though, the real test of this year’s conservative triumph will occur immediately after November 2. Whether it’s a matter of Republicans in Congress being forced to write a budget or of Republican presidential candidates having to come up with a positive message and agenda, they will not long enjoy the luxury of moving to the right without consequences. If they take control of the House and begin investigations and maybe impeachment proceedings against the president, their craziness will be apparent. And in 2012, they will face a very different electorate than the old-white-voterskewed midterm crowd of 2010.

If that evokes memories of the decisive U-turn in Republican fortunes which took place between 1994 and 1996, it’s no coincidence. After this primary season, the GOP appears poised to send to Washington a cadre of one-night political wonders who make the “Republican Revolutionaries” of 1994 look like pikers, if not RINOs.