In the wake of the GOP's Election Day beatdown, influential Republican senators say enough's enough: Party leaders need to put the kibosh on the kind of savage primaries that yielded candidates like Akin -- and crippled Republican prospects of taking the Senate in two straight election cycles.
It's time, they say, for Washington bosses to be more assertive about recruiting and then defending promising candidates. They argue that it's critical to start enlisting local conservative activists as allies and to ease the tea party versus Washington dynamic that's wreaked havoc on the party.
All easier said than done, of course. Tea party types have relished showing the chosen candidates of the Washington establishment a thing or two -- and it's hard to see them laying down arms overnight. But after a sure-bet election in 2012 turned into an electoral disaster, Republicans say resolving their primary problem is, well, their primary problem.
Now, top Republicans are considering splitting the difference between the heavy hand they wielded in 2010 that prompted sharp blowback from the right and their mostly hands-off approach of 2012. Both strategies produced a handful of unelectable candidates, so senators are gravitating toward a middle ground: engage in primaries so long as they can get some cover on the local level.
"We ought to make certain that if we get engaged in primaries that we're doing it based on the desires, the electability and the input of people back in the states that we're talking about," Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, told POLITICO. "And not from the perception of what political operatives from Washington, D.C., think about who ought to be the candidate in state X."
The first-term Moran, who was elected to the spot last week by his Senate colleagues, tapped incoming Texas freshman Sen. Ted Cruz as a vice chairman for grass roots and outreach. The plan, according to party leaders, is to employ Cruz's tea party star power to help win over activist groups that may be wary of the NRSC and help unify the GOP behind a single candidate in crucial Senate races.
Other conservative senators who have clout with the base may be enlisted to this effort, as well, Moran said, such as Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, former head of Club for Growth.
The new steps come as Republicans are looking at a favorable 2014 election map, defending 13 seats to the Democrats' 20 in midterm elections that are historically difficult for the president's party. As it typically does, the NRSC will fully support its incumbents.
And South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the tea party leader, said in an interview that he won't target GOP incumbents who could face primary challenges, including his home-state colleague, Lindsey Graham and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Still, the pressure is on for the GOP to do something after the party's stunning loss of two seats in an election that was supposed to produce a Republican majority.
"Candidates do matter," said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of party leadership. "When it's possible to find the best candidate, you need to find that candidate, encourage that candidate and then support and protect that candidate, so they're as strong going to the general election as possible."
Blunt would know. The biggest Republican disappointment of the cycle occurred in his home state, Missouri, when Akin, a six-term congressman, emerged from a three-way primary on the support of evangelical Christians and social conservatives.
In his primary race with John Brunner and Sarah Steelman, Akin was seen as the weakest of the three -- and he proved that after his comments about "legitimate rape" and abortion devastated his campaign. Instead of being defeated, the highly vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill, mocrat cruised to reelection by 15 percentage points.
But as the NRSC sat out of the Missouri GOP primary, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee bankrolled $800,000 worth of ads in the Republican contest, calling Akin "too conservative" -- a subtle move designed to bolster his appeal among the right. And Majority PAC, the Democratic super PAC, spent more than $1 million in ads attacking Brunner for "deception."
"I do think when the Democrats decided to play in a primary, that ought to catch our attention," said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who was recently named vice chairman of finance for the NRSC next cycle. "That was an opportunity for us to help at least to respond to the Democrat attempts in Missouri to choose a candidate they wanted. We should have at least been able to level the playing field."
Missouri wasn't the only state where Democrats got involved in the primary. In Wisconsin, Majority PAC spent more than $400,000 attacking two primary candidates, Eric Hovde and Tommy Thompson. The political arm of the left-leaning women's rights group Emily's List spent an additional $410,000 attacking the two men before the end of the primary. Thompson -- a favorite of Washington Republicans -- emerged from the primary, but he was battered and bruised and eventually lost to Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin.
All of this makes Republicans eager for a change in course.
"Democrats are trying to get a certain kind of Republican nominated; they're trying to position themselves so they can run against a Republican in the general and win," said Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns, who faces reelection in 2014. "We have to change our strategy now. Historically, the parties stayed out of the other's primary."
Whether they can sell that message to powerful groups active in GOP primaries remains to be seen. Club for Growth -- the anti-tax group that has had successes in backing the likes of Marco Rubio in Florida but also failures, such as backing Richard Mourdock in Indiana over Sen. Dick Lugar -- said it wouldn't have a problem with new NRSC involvement so long as it backed "principled candidates."
"Look at the 'electable' candidates in Montana, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Virginia and North Dakota this cycle," said Barney Keller, a spokesman for Club for Growth. "All were not chosen by pro-growth conservatives. All were chosen by the party establishment because they were considered more 'electable.' All were defeated on Election Day."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who in his 2010 primary defeated the candidate McConnell backed, was skeptical of a more aggressive NRSC.
"You're talking to a guy who wasn't the handpicked guy, so I'm unlikely to think we should handpick anyway," Paul said. "I'm a believer that the voters get to make these decisions."
While the NRSC helped recruit candidates for races this year, it would not endorse or spend money in primaries because of concerns that it would enrage the GOP base and imperil their favored candidates. Washington Democrats, on the other hand, quickly rallied behind candidates in several states, including Hawaii, Connecticut, Nevada, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Arizona.
The NRSC was spooked from its experience in 2010, when its favored candidates lost in several primaries and winnable seats in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada went to the Democrats. The committee's most embarrassing embrace -- the one most responsible for its gun-shy approach this year -- was choosing a moderate, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who later left the GOP, over Rubio.
After watching the Akin and Mourdock implosions, some conservative leaders say better coaching is in order, too.
"We need to do a good job of recruiting; our candidates need more training, keep their foots out of their mouth," DeMint told POLITICO. "There's a reason why most politicians talk in sanitized sound bites: Once you get out of that, you're opening yourself up to get attacked."
In an interview, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC chairman in the past two cycles, said the party needs to ask itself whether the goal is to prop up the most conservative candidate or push through the most conservative candidate that can win a general election. He said the party is reevalating its approach.
"The results of the election were pretty plain," Cornyn said. "Those are continuing conversations that we're going to have to have with the people who write the checks, with the people who man the phone banks and the people who lick the envelopes and the stamps."
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