There’s been plenty of talk among Washington Republicans about the need to recruit better candidates, the kind who will avoid cringe-worthy campaign moments that did in several GOP candidates last fall, and weighed down the party nationwide.
But there are already several conservatives gearing up for high-profile races over the next two years who threaten to stop that effort in its tracks.
Following the missteps of candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock – the Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana, respectively, who lost winnable Senate races after making roundly criticized comments about rape – establishment Republicans have been far more vocal about the need to rein in primary processes that produced such nominees.
The fact that 2012’s mistakes were not an aberration compounded Republicans’ worries. The same Tea Party fervor that produced rock stars like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio yielded Republican Senate nominees like Christine O’Donnell, Ken Buck and Sharron Angle – GOP candidates regarded as having squandered good pickup opportunities in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada.
This week’s Republican National Committee report recommending ways to strengthen the party came out and said it bluntly: “Groupthink is an issue.”
But in races like this fall’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia – along with several high-profile state races next fall – will offer direct tests of whether the GOP can finally navigate the narrow strait between conservative allegiance and electability in the general election.
The most immediate test will come this fall in Virginia, where Ken Cuccinelli is the candidate looking to keep the governor’s mansion in Republican hands for two consecutive terms for the first time since the mid-1990s.
Cuccinelli has long been a favorite of conservatives, having used his current office as state attorney general to launch court challenges to President Barack Obama’s health-care law. His reservoir of support on the right helped push Virginia’s relatively more moderate lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, out of the race. (Bolling subsequently weighed running as an independent candidate, but decided against it.)
And already, Cuccinelli has run his race in swing-state Virginia as an unabashed conservative. (His campaign-year manifesto, appropriately, is entitled “No Apologies.”) Whether that tack will work in a state that’s drifted toward the political middle – represented best by Obama’s wins there in 2008 and 2012 – is very much an open question, one which will be answered this fall.
Already, likely Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe’s campaign has revived a familiar playbook against Cuccinelli, seizing every opportunity to cast him as out-of-step with Virginia voters. The latest example came this week when a Democratic tracker released a video of Cuccinelli appearing to compare slavery to abortion during a speech last summer.
"Over time, the truth demonstrates its own rightness, and its own righteousness," Cuccinelli says in the clip. "Our experience as a country has demonstrated that on one issue after another. Start right at the beginning -- slavery. Today, abortion."
The McAuliffe campaign pounced.
“His comments reflect a career-long focus on an extreme ideological agenda that has nothing to do with Virginians’ top concern: the economy,” the Democratic candidate said. “Politicians who constantly create controversy on divisive social issues harm Virginia’s standing as one of the best states for business.”
And, looking ahead to some of next year’s campaigns, there are other GOP candidates who could follow in Cuccinelli’s steps and pose a challenge to Republicans’ efforts to seek out pitch-perfect nominees to wage successful campaigns in swing states.
In Iowa, Rep. Steve King has an inside track to the Republican nomination in next year’s Senate race, where he’ll be looking to pick up a seat for the GOP following the retirement of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. He survived a competitive re-election campaign last fall, an experience which he said hadn’t caused him to back off of his brand of unflinching conservatism.
“I went through the toughest election of my life last fall. I had tracking cameras around me from St. Patrick’s Day through Nov. 6 … always focused on me, trying to get a second or a minute that they could use against me in an ad,” King said in his speech last week before CPAC, the gathering of conservative activists. “They’re in the business of trying to undermine and weaken us, and I didn’t back up on any principle.”
Republicans are also nervously watching Michigan, where they’re trying to avoid the missteps of 2012, when Senate nominee Pete Hoekstra doomed his campaign early on with a racially-charged ad targeting Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Already, several Republicans have bowed out from the race, easing the path for the libertarian-minded Rep. Justin Amash, should he decide to seek the nomination. Though his conservatism isn’t necessarily in the mold of Cuccinelli or King, Amash would almost certainly face the same efforts from Democrats looking to cast him as too conservative for the Great Lakes State.
Just in his second term, Amash has exhibited a repeated willingness to ruffle fellow Republicans’ feathers, so much that he ended up being one of the four House Republicans stripped of their committee assignments by the GOP leadership this year. He told National Review in December that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would not be welcome in his district. And Amash was one of the lawmakers Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last week called “wacko birds” for their opposition to the Obama administration’s drone policy.
Amash was one of 10 Republicans who, on Thursday, voted against Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2014 budget because it didn’t go far enough in cutting spending. Another was Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, a deeply conservative Republican who’s the only officially announced GOP candidate in the state’s Senate race.
He said in an interview earlier this month that his fellow Republicans aren’t doing enough to repeal Obamacare, despite the repeated votes to repeal part or all of the law. (It inevitably dies in the Senate, or would face a veto from Obama.)
“There are a lot of Republicans who call themselves conservatives, who, in fact, are not,” Broun said. “We need to continue to, every few weeks, have a bill on the floor to repeal pieces of Obamacare as well as votes to repeal the whole law. President Obama will not sign a bill, but that’s the point.”