GOP Newcomers Raise Fall Stakes

June 10, 2010

Midway through a volatile primary season that has seen the electorate move right and a spate of incumbents knocked out, Republican voters are placing a clear bet that a roster of outspoken, anti-government candidates, many new to the national stage, can ride the country’s anti-Washington mood to victory.

Some Republican candidates are embracing the strongest small-government policies since the GOP’s sweeping win in 1994, defying many analyst predictions that the election of President Barack Obama two years ago signaled a leftward tilt for the nation.

For instance, Sharron Angle, chosen Tuesday by GOP voters in Nevada to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has said Social Security should be “transitioned out” and the Department of Energy, a large employer in her home state, eliminated. Rand Paul, the GOP Senate nominee in Kentucky, has said he would limit the Federal Reserve Board’s ability to control interest rates.

“Remember, they said that Reagan was too conservative to win,” Ms. Angle said in her victory speech Tuesday night. “There’s no such thing.”

Many in the party are celebrating the new blood and see the developing landscape as an echo of 1994, when Republicans won the Senate and retook the House from Democrats after four decades. Polls show the anti-incumbency passions of Americans are at least equal to those of that year.

In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 63% of voters said most members of Congress do not deserve re-election, while 32% said most do—among the most anti-incumbent responses since Gallup first asked the question in 1992.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this election, it’s that voters don’t want someone in Washington telling them who to vote for,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), who is spearheading the Republicans’ Senate campaigns.

Yet strategists in both parties say the fall campaign season, when less politically active and more moderate voters tend to first tune in to campaigns, will pose a test for many of these new candidates—and more broadly, of how conservative the U.S. has become.

“The challenge for these candidates is transitioning from an insurgent profile to a candidate who can be trusted not only to win but to govern,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who worked for former presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2008. “This is the test now for all these candidates.”

Democrats argue that they will benefit from many of the GOP nominees whose candidacies have been fueled by conservative anger at Washington. They say the emerging GOP lineup will help shift the November election from a referendum on Democratic control to a contest between individual candidates with clear differences.

“Nevada is just the latest state where Republicans chose an extremist candidate over an establishment candidate,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), who coordinates the Democratic Senate campaigns, of Ms. Angle’s win. “Now [party leaders] are in the awkward position of supporting candidates they didn’t want because they didn’t think they could win the general election.”

To be sure, Democrats face steep challenges of their own. Nearly 50 Democrats hold House seats in districts carried by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008. If the electorate has in fact shifted to the right since then, many of those Democrats could be deeply vulnerable.

Even Democrats considered centrists, such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D, Ark.), who defeated a liberal primary challenger Tuesday, face trouble this fall. In public opinion surveys, Ms. Lincoln trails her GOP opponent, Rep. John Boozman, by margins of 17 points and more.

And Republicans have found centrist candidates of their own in states with a moderate tradition. Two GOP House members considered centrists—Mark Kirk in Illinois and Mike Castle in Delaware—are well positioned to claim the Senate seats once held by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

History is also a factor. In prior elections dominated by a desire for change, such as the national contests in 1980 and 1994, non-traditional candidates often have swept to victory.

For instance, voters in 1980 elected not only Ronald Reagan but a number of GOP senators who previously had been seen as outside their party’s mainstream—including by some Republicans. They included Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, Paula Hawkins of Florida, Mack Mattingly of Georgia and John P. East of North Carolina.

Former Rep. Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican, said such proposals as abolishing the Department of Education might not be unpopular in this campaign. Mr. Reagan, he noted, won with a platform that included abolishing the departments of energy and education. “We might find that some of those positions are not as far out of the mainstream this year,” Mr. Weber said.

Still, Democrats have stepped up arguments that Republicans are drifting too far to the right—and in some cases have actively worked to that end.

In Nevada, the party worked to promote the most conservative GOP candidates by attacking such mainstream Republicans as Sue Lowden, the former Senate front-runner in Nevada, who lost to Ms. Angle.

Similarly in Idaho, Democrats attacked Vaughn Ward, a major in the Marine Corps Reserve who had the backing of the Republican establishment, as he faced a tea-party-backed House candidate, Raul Labrador.

Now, Democratic Rep. Walter Minnick, considered one of the most endangered incumbents in the House, will this fall face Mr. Labrador, a poorly funded GOP opponent who has spoken in favor of repealing the constitutional amendment that allowed voters to directly elect senators.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg political report, said Wednesday there is still time for Democrats to mitigate their losses and shift some of the races from a referendum on Democratic rule to a choice between candidates.

“There are going to be substantial losses,” he said, “but whether it’s five seats or 10 seats in the Senate is a pretty big difference. Whether it’s 25 seats or 45 seats in the House is a pretty big difference.”

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