All GOP Primaries Are Not Created Equal

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 6, 2014 · 10:48 AM EST

Reporters can be lazy. I know this is a shock for many of you, but I think some of the media coverage of Republican Senate primaries has been somewhat shallow.

The short story is that not all primaries are created equal.

Senators vary in vulnerability, challengers vary in credibility and outside groups vary in size, scope and effectiveness. And the GOP’s hopes of taking back the majority do not hinge on every primary. Too often, stories about Republican primaries, past and present, get lumped into one narrative pitting the tea party against the establishment. In reality, most of these races are far more complex.

It might be cliche, but defeating an incumbent is difficult. Challengers often need to run a perfect campaign, have the incumbent run an inept one, get significant outside help and catch a couple breaks along the way.

For example, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar might have been able to survive state Treasurer Richard Mourdock’s primary challenge in 2012 if he had run a better campaign. Lugar’s team never quite grasped the new political reality that devalues political experience rather than rewards it, and the senator mishandled residency questions for weeks.

In 2010, you could argue that Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s team was too slow to identify the strength of the tea party in her state. And Sen. Bob Bennett’s loss in Utah was partially due to the state’s quirky caucus and convention process before the primary.

Although it is often misreported, Ted Cruz did not defeat an incumbent in the 2012 Texas primary. The race was certainly an establishment versus outsider battle, but he knocked off sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the GOP race.

This cycle, some senators have clearly been gearing up for a potential primary fight before others. On one end of the spectrum is Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. The GOP leader had nearly $9.8 million in campaign funds at the end of September and has been running a full re-election campaign for months. On the other end of the spectrum is Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who had $804,000 in the bank on Sept. 30 and announced just last month his intention to run for re-election.

We often now categorize senators and their re-election campaigns in terms of taking the “Hatch Path” — named after Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, who easily survived his primary last cycle — or the “Lugar Path,” named after the previously mentioned Indiana senator who lost.

But it’s important to remember that it is too late for senators up in 2014 to choose the “Hatch Path.” Cochran, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi missed the exit for that strategy, which would have required them to gear up for tough races well over a year ago. That doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t win; they just won’t be following the “Hatch Path.” [Note: CNN reported over the weekend that Liz Cheney, Enzi's primary challenger, would drop her bid.]

Another big factor in judging primaries is the strength of the challengers, and there is a wide spectrum of candidates.

Businessman Matt Bevin spent $657,000 on his challenge to McConnell through the end of September. That’s nearly twice the amount all of the other candidates challenging GOP senators combined. And even that number is skewed, since Liz Cheney spent $233,000 against Enzi in Wyoming. Dr. Milton Wolf in Kansas and state Sen. Chris McDaniel in Mississippi haven’t even filed their first campaign finance reports yet. Again, that doesn’t mean that they (or others) won’t develop into serious challengers, but it’s important to keep things in context.

Texas Rep. Steve Stockman carried $163,000 in campaign debt on Sept. 30, yet his challenge to Sen. John Cornyn has inexplicably been included as a potentially serious race.

Even though “constitutional conservatives” might be aching to knock off a half-dozen incumbents, most outside groups aren’t interested in nor have the resources to carry candidates across the finish line. Candidates have to share a certain level of credibility before outside groups get involved.

In the absence of big fundraising, challengers often need considerable support from outside groups. Right now, the only state where many of the outside groups are aligned is Mississippi. The Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and Madison Project (which is focused on grass-roots organizing) have already signaled their involvement for McDaniel and against Cochran.

As Jessica Taylor wrote, outside groups have different agendas and criteria for getting involved.

The Club for Growth’s evaluation of a race is partially an exercise in a senator’s voting record. Cochran’s 68 percent lifetime rating is a much more attractive target than McConnell’s 84 percent or Enzi’s 86 percent. But the group’s philosophy is somewhat different than other groups that value a “voice rather than a vote,” preferring challengers who say they will not only vote the “right” way, but be a spokesperson for the conservative cause.

But no matter why or how outside groups choose to get involved, challengers often need as much help as they can get to win a primary.

Finally, the vast majority of the Republican senators facing primaries represent Republican-leaning states that won’t be in play in November. Democrats won’t have much of a chance in Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee or Wyoming, even if incumbent senators lose in the primary. Kentucky is somewhat of an outlier because McConnell’s vulnerability in a general election isn’t because of his primary.

Looking back over recent history, Lugar was the only Republican incumbent to lose a primary in a competitive state. And even then, the Hoosier state is more Democratic than the states with primaries this cycle. Again, GOP primaries over the past two cycles in Nevada, Colorado, Delaware, and Missouri that produced flawed nominees did not have a Republican incumbent.

The Republican primaries with the most general election ramifications this year are races without a GOP incumbent, including Georgia, North Carolina, Alaska, and Colorado.

That being said, a rhetorical trainwreck from one GOP candidate anywhere will, at least temporarily, force the entire party onto the defensive as all Republican candidates will be asked to affirm or denounce the remarks.