Republican Tea Party Fear Outlasts Primaries
Robert Boatright, who knows more about Congressional primary elections than anyone, evaluates this year's almost-complete cycle of Republican primaries and concludes that, yes, margins of victory are falling, but, no, incumbents aren't really in any more trouble than usual. (That's pretty much where I came down in a less rigorous first look).
Here is Boatright:
Do Republicans have reason to be worried, then? It depends on what one means by "worried." It does look like there is now a residual anti-incumbent vote share of 20 percent or more in many Republican districts. If the worry is that Republicans will have to raise money just in case something goes wrong, then yes, they should be worried - although few congressional incumbents are particularly bad at raising money. If the worry is that incumbents will lose any more often than is the norm, or that incumbents who have not done something particularly disastrous will lose, then such concerns are misplaced, as they have been for decades.
Boatright asks the crucial question of how, exactly, incumbents are surviving -- by pretending to be radicals themselves, or by fighting against radicalism? The answer, at least in Senate primaries, seems to be mixed. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and others ran as sensible conservatives, while in 2012 in Utah, for example, Orrin Hatch hewed to the Tea Party line.
At least once in 2015 or 2016, and probably three or four times, Senator Ted Cruz or Representative Louie Gohmert or some other Republican radical will make a suggestion that sensible mainstream conservatives believe is totally nutty. Shut down the government without the leverage to achieve their goals? Refuse to raise the debt limit and let the government default? Impeach the president? When that happens -- and we know it will -- the key question is what goes on in the heads of the mainstream Republican legislators. Is it: "If I don't go along with this insane plan, I will be attacked in a primary?" Or is it: "This craziness could be costly to me and the Republican ticket in November 2016?"
Such reactions are bound to be subjective. It really doesn't matter what objective studies say about the actual electoral effect; what matters is what politicians believe the electoral effects to be, and how they act as a result.
The evidence suggests that Republicans in Congress have thus far been more scared of losing their primary campaigns than of losing general elections -- although we could use more reporting on that, as well as on how incumbents are acting in House primaries. I don't think anything in this cycle is going to change that dynamic.
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