Bringing Back the Buckley Rule
When deciding which candidate to support in nominating contests, William F. Buckley, Jr. had a simple rule of thumb he went by: “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable.”
Nowadays, the rule among GOP voters—at least in many instances—appears to be the following: “Nominate the most conservative candidate.”
In some cases, focusing more on the candidate’s philosophy of government brings about very good results. Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas are very capable conservatives who promise to get a lot done and to advance the conservative cause. They know how to handle themselves on the campaign trail and in the halls of government, and no one will mistake them for intellectual pushovers in any argument or debate in which they are involved. Both Lee and Cruz are exceedingly smart, exceedingly articulate, and more than able to hold their own against the best the port side has to offer.
But in other cases, the new rule brings about terrible results. Think of Christine O’Donnell. Think of Sharron Angle. Think of Todd Akin. Think of Richard Mourdock. All four candidates ran in races that were eminently winnable for Republicans. All four candidates obliterated Republican chances of winning because they were too far to the right for the electorates whose votes they were seeking, and/or because they were simply too dumb and too inept to do well on the campaign trail.
If you are a Republican, you ought to want those races back, and you ought to want to be able to go back into time to nominate a better candidate. Say whatever you want about Mike Castle (Delaware) and/or Dick Lugar (Indiana) being “RINOs”; they would have stood a better chance of winning than O’Donnell and Mourdock had respectively. Harry Reid was very vulnerable back in 2010, but Angle was the kind of opponent he most wanted to face in a general election, and he ended up beating her by nearly six percentage points—a comfortable margin for a supposedly endangered candidate. And who really thinks that in a general election—especially one in which he wouldn’t have been weakened by a senseless challenge from the likes of Richard Mourdock—Dick Lugar would have had trouble beating Joe Donnelly?
Something has to be done to bring the GOP back to the realm of electoral sanity. It is fine and good to nominate right-of-center candidates, either of the conservative or the libertarian stripe, but those candidates have to be able to win. Otherwise, what on Earth is the point?
That’s why Republicans ought to be glad to see this:
The biggest donors in the Republican Party are financing a new group to recruit seasoned candidates and protect Senate incumbents from challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts who Republican leaders worry could complicate the party’s efforts to win control of the Senate.
The group, the Conservative Victory Project, is intended to counter other organizations that have helped defeat establishment Republican candidates over the last two election cycles. It is the most robust attempt yet by Republicans to impose a new sense of discipline on the party, particularly in primary races.
“There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected,” said Steven J. Law, the president of American Crossroads, the “super PAC” creating the new project. “We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”
The effort would put a new twist on the Republican-vs.-Republican warfare that has consumed the party’s primary races in recent years. In effect, the establishment is taking steps to fight back against Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations that have wielded significant influence in backing candidates who ultimately lost seats to Democrats in the general election.
The first test of the group’s effort to influence primary races could come here in Iowa, where some Republicans are already worrying about who will run for the seat being vacated by Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat. It is the first open Senate seat in Iowa since 1974, and Republicans are fearful of squandering a rare opportunity.
The Conservative Victory Project, which is backed by Karl Rove and his allies who built American Crossroads into the largest Republican super PAC of the 2012 election cycle, will start by intensely vetting prospective contenders for Congressional races to try to weed out candidates who are seen as too flawed to win general elections.
The project is being waged with last year’s Senate contests in mind, particularly the one in Missouri, where Representative Todd Akin’s comment that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy rippled through races across the country. In Indiana, the Republican candidate, Richard E. Mourdock, lost a race after he said that when a woman became pregnant during a rape it was “something God intended.”
As Republicans rebuild from losing the White House race and seats in the House and Senate last year, party leaders and strategists are placing a heightened focus on taking control of the Senate next year. Republicans must pick up six seats to win a majority.
Now look: I stress again that there are times in which a challenge from the right will do the GOP good either by getting an incumbent to straighten up, or by replacing a poor incumbent with a better challenger. And before anyone else says it, yes, I am wary of electoral projects undertaken by Karl Rove, given his poor performance in the last election cycle.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the Buckley Rule needs to come back in a major way. Too many on the right seem to think that the object of nominating contests is to select the most ideologically pure candidate, irrespective of the circumstances. That’s not correct. The candidate’s philosophical inclinations are not to be ignored, but the ultimate object of nominating contests is to select a candidate who can win in the general election.
So I am glad that movements like the Conservative Victory Project are being spawned. And if you are a Republican, you should be glad too.
Or are you not tired of losing elections yet?