How To Stop the Next Todd Akin
Why Karl Rove can’t stop the “wrong conservatives” from running for office.
Rep. Todd Akin addresses the media on September 2012 in Kirkwood, Mo.
Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images
The would-be saviors of the Republican Party have one question, one that must be answered before the comeback can truly begin. What about your gaffes?
It’s the sure-thing applause line in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s current speeches. “We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments,” said the Louisiana governor in front of party audiences last month. “Enough of that!” It’s the theory behind the Conservative Victory Project, an as yet murky outgrowth of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. In a front page Sunday New York Times story, American Crossroads president Stephen J. Law said that Republicans had “blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected.” Rep. Steve King, an Iowa conservative now thinking about a Senate race, might have to be mercy-smothered by super PAC cash, because “all of the things he’s said are going to be hung around his neck.”
Who were the wrong candidates, the scrubs who cost Republicans the Senate? This is the list: Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), Ken Buck (Colorado), Sharron Angle (Nevada), Richard Mourdock (Indiana), and Todd Akin (Missouri). In two of these cases, in Indiana and Delaware, Republican elder statesmen who could have won easily were replaced with losers. In Delaware, in 2010, the Democrats lucked out when Christine O’Donnell advanced in the GOP primary. By 2011 the Democrats were actually recruiting a candidate in Indiana because they bet Sen. Richard Lugar, unbeatable in a general election, would be brought down in the primary.
“The damage has already been done,” says former Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, the stem-cell-research-supporting, compromise-seeking candidate whose 44-year career was ended by O’Donnell. “I’m not an insider when it comes to this new effort, but the goal seems to be to stem future damage. I think that's good.”
But will it really be this easy? Law, who was Mitch McConnell’s chief of staff before he entered the semi-private sector, talks as if the “bad candidate” problem is easy to detect and easy to burn out, and as if no one has tried it before. It has been tried before. In 2012, the American Action Network saw Lugar imploding and bought $600,000 worth of TV ads to try to save him, accusing Mourdock of benefiting from “illegal tax breaks” and other hypocrisies. It failed spectacularly, with the little-known state treasurer topping Lugar by 20 points.
Those ads started late. The Conservative Victory Project, theoretically, would get the jump on the unelectables. But what makes a candidate unelectable? “Electability,” as conservatives know it, was the concept that delivered Republicans President Mitt Romney and President John McCain.
American Crossroads has funded plenty of electable candidates. In 2012, it spent around $26.5 million to elect Republicans who were heartily supported by the party establishment. That meant $11.3 million in Virginia, $7.4 million in Wisconsin, $5 million in Montana, $1.8 million in North Dakota, and even $1.1 million in New Mexico, where America Crossroads co-founder Heather Wilson was busily losing an open Senate race. No Republican consultant has accused these candidates of gaffes. George Allen’s campaign in Virginia was almost eerily gaffe-free. But most of these candidates ran behind Mitt Romney anyway.
“All these reasonable moderate voices that ran with establishment support lost,” says Chris Chocola, the two-term Republican congressman who now runs the Club for Growth. “The Club for Growth has gotten involved in seven election cycles, and Republicans have gone on to lose only two of those general elections—Nevada and Mourdock.* And, look, I’m from Indiana. Richard Mourdock had won statewide, twice. When he won those races, he didn’t talk about social issues. He did once. It was a big mistake. There’s no question: He blew it. He wasn’t Todd Akin, but he had a Todd Akin moment.”
The funny thing about Akin is that no side can really claim him. (Why would they want to?) The 2012 Missouri primary was a three-way race between Akin, businessman John Brunner, and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman. “Todd Akin is often called a Tea Party candidate,” says Tea Party Express strategist Sal Russo, “but we didn’t support him in the primary. Steelman was our candidate.” In defeat, Steelman attacked the National Republican Senatorial Committee for tacitly backing Brunner, a “Stepford Wives” candidate, and suggested that “the Republican Party should actually listen to what Sarah Palin has to say, instead of stiff-arming her.” That’s not exactly the promise of the Conservative Victory Project.
No, Akin’s specific problem was speculating, based on disturbingly popular pseudoscience, that the stress caused by nonconsensual sex could “shut down” conception. He elevated a social issue, when Republicans realized social issues introduced the wrong way could only hurt the party.
“My view is Republicans will need to be a little more thoughtful in their approach to issues,” says Mike Castle. “They may vote the way they would have before, but be less vehement in how they talk about the issues.”
So why do they talk that way? Akin, we know, actually believed it. Other Republicans feel pressure to prove their conservative bona fides, because they fear a challenge from someone who’ll make them prove it. Former Rep. Steve LaTourette, who left Congress this year and took over the moderate Republican Main Street Coalition, watched Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel disprove years of hype and blow tens of millions of dollars in a failed bid for the Senate. (American Crossroads spent $6.4 million.)
“The campaign reflected the way someone afraid of a primary challenge might campaign,” says LaTourette. “He spent a lot of time talking about [fetal] personhood legislation, and that really isn't a big deal when it comes down to it.”
But Mandel didn’t start talking about “personhood” because he had a death wish. The issue arose, and was elevated, by Republican legislators and conservative activists. At the supply side of the Republican Party, at the base level and in the primary electorate, there’s a greater and greater demand for conservative fealty. The early-money-for-moderates strategy doesn’t get at the root of that. It doesn’t even try to. In November 2012, in one of the first “the GOP blew it in Senate races” thumbsuckers, Wall Street Journal columnist Kim Strassel accused Republicans of “dismal” recruitment efforts, without identifying what had been dismal about them. She had special derision for Montana loser Rep. Denny Rehberg, “whose first bet was to sell out his own party on Medicare reform with ads trashing Paul Ryan … in a state where 55 percent of voters voted for Mr. Romney (and his Medicare reforms).”
Sadly, there’s no proof that snuggling up with the Ryan budget could have helped Rehberg. In the Montana exit poll, voters who were most worried about health care went for Obama by a landslide, 70-28. This is probably why the would-be saviors, in their would-be donor pitches, offer no proof that Republicans can solve their problems if only they knock off the gaffes. It’s called the Conservative Victory Project, not the Let Moderates Be Moderates Project.
“Politics is marketing,” says Chris Chocola. “You have to market your ideas in an appealing way.”
Correction, Feb. 5, 2013: This article originally stated that Club for Growth has gotten involved in seven primaries. It has gotten involved in seven election cycles. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.