He makes his point here that choosing populist insurgents over establishmentarians in a primary is a bad idea by rattling off the names of infamous losers in the general election — Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin. You can imagine the response from tea partiers, or whatever’s left of them: What about the insurgents who won their primaries and then went on to win the general too? For every O’Donnell there’s a Marco Rubio; for every Angle a Mike Lee; for every Mourdock a Rand Paul; for every Akin a Ted Cruz. True, but three of those four won in solid red states where the winner of the Republican primary is a prohibitive favorite in November. The one exception, Rubio, won an unusual three-way race in which Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek split the Democratic vote. Their combined share of 49.9 percent was actually a point higher than Rubio’s winning share of 48.9.
And needless to say, Rubio is no one’s idea of a tea-party all-star at this point. If anything, McConnell would point to him as exactly the sort of “insurgent” whom populists should be supporting *if* they’re going to take the dangerous step of opposing the incumbent in the first place. It’s fine to back a populist like Roy Moore in a state as red as Alabama (well, maybe not “fine”), but you’d be a sucker to roll the dice on someone like that in a purple state like Florida.
Or Arizona? An interesting detail from the NYT’s new story on the perils facing Jeff Flake:
[Kelli] Ward, an osteopathic physician and a former state senator who ran unsuccessfully against Arizona’s other senator, John McCain, in 2016, was busy preparing last week for her campaign kickoff. It is scheduled for Tuesday night with the conservative radio host Laura Ingraham as the featured guest…
Ms. Ward, his Republican challenger, is aligned more closely with Mr. Trump, though her critics in the party have portrayed her as a fringe candidate, and Mr. Trump, while praising her on Twitter, has not given her an explicit endorsement. Mr. Bannon, who has declared “war” on establishment Republicans, is said to be hunting for stronger candidates than Ms. Ward to take on Mr. Flake.
Bannon’s no fool. An irony of McConnell lecturing him here about candidate quality is that Bannon himself has doubtless thought hard about this subject already. The surest way to undermine his own populist movement would be to nominate someone fringe-y in a purple state over a Republican incumbent and have that nominee go on to lose the general to a Democrat, fulfilling McConnell’s prophesy. Bannon needs to pick his spots: The redder the state, the less candidate quality matters in the primary. The bluer the state, the more he needs a strong candidate as nominee in order to “prove” his overarching point, which is that right-wing populism is supposedly a winner anywhere it’s tried. If he ends up saddled with a bunch of O’Donnells who go down in flames to Democrats in what were otherwise winnable seats, McConnell will never stop talking about it. And Republican voters, newly chastened about the risks of nominating loose-cannon no-name insurgents, will think hard before lining up for Bannon’s next populist crusade. He needs winners and nothing but winners in 2018 to build momentum for his movement.
I wonder, by the way, if McConnell has ever whispered to Trump about the risk of nominating insurgents. Not because they might lose, I mean — but because they might win. Most of the tea-party winners like Cruz, Lee, Rubio, and Ben Sasse have been good puppies for POTUS, criticizing him at times (especially Sasse) but voting reliably for his agenda. Paul, though, has been more of a thorn in Trump’s side, careful to praise him but a very hard bargain on Republican ObamaCare reforms. McConnell famously supported Paul’s primary opponent, Trey Grayson, when Paul first ran for Senate in 2010. I wonder if he’s told Trump how much easier his life might be right now if Grayson, not Paul, had emerged from Kentucky seven years ago. No doubt Bannon is whispering to Trump during phone calls that all of his candidates will win their general elections next year. Maybe, McConnell might be telling POTUS, but then you’ll have a bunch of Rand Pauls to deal with. Will that really make life easier?
Then again, who were the three Republicans who killed “skinny repeal”? Collins, Murkowski, and McCain, all as establishment as they come.
Exit quotation via Flake, defending Bob Corker’s criticism of Trump: “A conservative is conservative in demeanor and comportment — not just policy. And the way you conduct foreign policy as a conservative is that you are steady and measured and predictable. And that’s not what we have now.” Um, when was the last time we had that?