Although May 8th, 2012 seems to be a meaningless date for most, I remember it vividly. It was a Tuesday, and I was incessantly working the phones to keep Senator Richard Lugar in office, as I had been for the previous several months. But this was it. All of our work was going to be put to the test. We had made more phone calls in Indiana than the Romney campaign had across America at that time.
At one point, when I pressed the “Next Call” button, the screen went blank, and that was it. The call logs were done, and we went upstairs to see the results.
The mood was relatively calm until the results slowly started trickling in, and the sadness was felt immediately. People started to leave, and not even a call from one of my best friends telling me that he found not one but two dates for me to take to his prom could change that (I ended up only going with one).
In looking back over the past year, it’s remarkable to see how simple my projections were, and how true they ended up being. 2014 was a banner year for Republicans in terms of candidate recruitment (from Thom Tillis to Joni Ernst to Tom Cotton to Cory Gardner, all of whom won Senate races last November, in each case flipping a Democratic seat) and it behooves us to learn these lessons.
My claim that primary challenges against Republicans such as John Boehner, Renee Ellmers, and David Joyce would prove futile all proved to be correct.
My one regret is that Congressmen Walter Jones and Justin Amash both survived their primary challenges. I’ve written before that they are the members that groups like Club for Growth should be targeting, to no avail.
In 2012, Republicans learned the lesson the hard way about candidate quality. In 2014, we reaped the rewards (Democrats in fact had to contend with a socialist, a fake farmer, and a candidate who accidentally conceded the general election, to name a few).
It remains to be seen what will happen in 2016 and beyond.
Here is the article I wrote this time last year:
May 8th, 2012 was but two short years ago, but quite a lot has happened in that time period. We saw our hopes to take over the senate dashed by awful candidates, going on to in fact lose two seats, rather than capture the four seats necessary, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
But what is so important about May 8th? The answer is simple: on this day, Indiana voters chose to forgo a certain victory at the polls in November by casting aside six term US Senator Richard Lugar, and instead opting for State Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
I vividly remember making calls in the week leading up to the primary, telling people that a vote for Richard Mourdock was nothing less than a vote for Harry Reid to continue on as Majority Leader in November. Nonsense, the voters assured me. A Democrat has no chance of winning statewide in Indiana this year.
Fast forward to Election Day, when Indiana was called for Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly, who garnered 50% of the vote. What happened?
In the weeks before the primary, polls came out showed Lugar trouncing Donnelly by double digits, whereas Mourdock was tied with the Congressman from South Bend. As such, I was able to predict without much difficulty (well before Mourdock’s comments about rape) that he would lose the election. After having campaign on the ground in Indiana, I got the sense that many of the “Lugar Republicans” would never vote for Mourdock, whose hyperpartisanship stands in stark contrast to Lugar’s legacy. Without that critical voting bloc, a victory for Mourdock was going to be difficult from the minute after he became the Republican nominee. Mourdock had already committed a serious gaffe when he talked about his desire to “inflict” his opinion on those who disagree with him, and his October surprise about rape harmed more than just his candidacy.
In a spectacular coincidence, Romney had endorsed Mourdock right before his comments claiming that pregnancy as a result from rape were “god’s gift,” and this placed him (and Republicans nationwide) in a bit of a predicament. Without winning Indiana, the road to a senate majority was impossible (Missouri was already a lost cause thanks to Todd Akin).
Akin’s comments about rape were disavowed by just about every Republican across the nation, effectively undercutting a phony “war on women” claim. Here Republicans are willing to give up a senate seat because of a sentence uttered on a radio talk show. However our reluctance to meaningfully disavow Mourdock fed the flames of the war on women to Democrats across the nation (Romney had never endorsed Akin, so it was harder to connect the two in the aftermath of Akin’s disastrous comments).
Lugar’s 36 years in the senate are remarkable, but in my mind, today is the time to reflect on what lessons we have learned in the aftermath of this election. We have much to celebrate, especially since we just avoided forcing a runoff in North Carolina between the man who will certainly be the nominee no matter what (Thom Tillis), and another, who has deeply disturbing connections with 9/11 truther groups. In this instance, we finally got our act together, realizing that (contrary to what Jim Demint enjoys saying), the only person who wants 30 rock solid conservatives (thus forming a powerless minority) in the senate is Harry Reid, who will be able to pass any bill he wants over their protests.
None of this is to say that incumbency entitles members to avoid primary challenges. In fact, North Carolina boasted one of the best opportunities to knock off a sitting member of congress. Walter Jones is the most liberal House Republican, yet groups like FreedomWorks are happier to waste their money on futile challenges to John Boehner, David Joyce, Thom Tillis, Renee Ellmers, and David Rouzer. Every single one of these members or candidates was targeted by national groups, and each of them was nominated with little serious problems. Imagine if a fraction of that money had been spent attacking Jones (who, thanks to groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel, faced a serious primary from Taylor Griffin). Maybe then would they have something to be celebrating, instead of looking to glean some positive news out of what otherwise must have been a pretty bad night.
In just a couple of weeks we will have another opportunity to see if Republicans have learned anything from Lugar’s primary. In Mississippi, conservative groups are salivating at the thought of being able to deny Thad Cochran another term, favoring Chris McDaniel, who alienated just about every major voting bloc in his time as a radio host, and who also has disturbingly close ties to neo-Confederate groups. It’s like déjà vu all over again (or like Matt Bevin addressing cock-fighting groups in Kentucky). Cochran can certainly defeat former Democratic Congressman Travis Childers (who voted against Obamacare while in office), but McDaniel’s odds are up in the air. If states like Mississippi are in play this November, we’re in deep trouble. If we learn from the lessons of the May 8th primary, Harry Reid can look forward to being referred to as minority leader come January, but it’s up to the voters, not the millions in out of state spending that will be leveled their way in the next 6 months.