The Religious Right and Tea Party groups are making the case that Romney could have won if he had more clearly and unambiguously embraced their policies. They are determined to force the Republican Party to stop nominating “moderates,” on the shaky premise that compromise has cost the party at the polls.
Election results from across the country tell the opposite story. By comparing Romney’s winning percentage to the margins of other Republican races it is clear that the far right, especially hardline religious conservatives, were a drain on the GOP ticket in almost every corner of the nation. The party’s most stubborn ideological core is unlikely to coaxed back to reason by anything as flimsy as numbers, but the results still deserve a look.
Romney out-polled the Republican Senate field by a national average of four points. The story gets even clearer with a look at specific races. Candidates who were able to break completely from the party’s religious conservative base were consistently more competitive than the Romney/Ryan ticket. There was not a single Republican Senate candidate with opposition who outperformed Romney by embracing Tea Party or religious conservative priorities. Not one.
Of the 33 Republican Senate candidates, only eight of them gathered a higher percentage of the vote than Romney (one was a virtual tie, a stand-in candidate in California). Of the eight who outpolled Romney, three ran essentially unopposed (in Tennessee, Wyoming, and Mississippi). The other five all ran centrist campaigns at maximum distance from the Tea Party and they pointedly rejected culture war themes.
Laura Lingle in Hawaii (+10% over Romney/Ryan), Scott Brown in Massachusetts (+9%), Linda McMahon in Connecticut (+3%) and Heather Wilson in New Mexico (+2%) avoided pro-life positions. Dean Heller in Nevada (+.2%) has ridden both sides of the abortion debate while downplaying its importance. Brown supported gay marriage and financial reform. McMahon actually passed out fliers urging people to vote for her and Obama.
The rest of the GOP Senate field under-performed Romney/Ryan by an average of seven points. The underperformers included Palin-endorsed hardliners in deep-red states like Ted Cruz (-1% under Romney/Ryan), Deb Fischer (-2%), and Jeff Flake (-4%). If a deeply evangelical Tea Party fantasy candidate can’t outpoll Romney in Texas then perhaps the Republican far right is not the force they think they are.
As in 2010, Tea Party activists in 2012 gave the Republican Party some of its worst performing candidates. Two of the Tea Party’s most prominent primary winners, Todd Akin (-14% against Romney) and Richard Mourdock (-11%) cost the GOP near-certain Senate gains. Josh Mandel in Ohio (-3%), Tom Smith in Pennsylvania (-2%) and Denny Rehberg in Montana (-11%) rode their Tea Party message to big embarrassing losses in races that Republicans could have won.
The ideological fringe was no more popular farther down the ballot. Some surprisingly tight Congressional races and outright losses from prominent Tea Party candidates like Chip Cravaack in Minnesota, Allen West in Florida, and Joe Walsh in Illinois point to the same anti-Tea Party dynamic seen in Senate results.
In Gubernatorial races pragmatic Republicans who avoided Tea Party rhetoric again outperformed the field. In the eleven campaigns, only four Republicans gained a larger percentage of the vote than Romney/Ryan. All of them ran toward the center. Clearly, “moderation” was not a drag on the Romney campaign.
Patrick McCrory won in North Carolina (+5% over Romney) while taking a muted stance on abortion, supporting state-funded pre-Kindergarten, and backing campaign finance reform. Rob McKenna came within 60,000 votes of the Washington Governor’s office (+8%) while taking an aggressive pro-choice position and backing civil unions. By contrast, Indiana Tea Party favorite Mike Pence under-performed Romney by almost five points, winning his deep red state with a mere plurality.
The story of the 2012 election was a continuing pattern of Republican geographic concentration. For two decades Republicans have been giving away traditional bastions in places like suburban Philadelphia and New York, Chicago’s collar counties, and Southern California. The Republican Party is instead catering to shrinking geographic strongholds in the south and rural west, trending farther and farther to extremes in those bolt holes while becoming less competitive nationally.
In the Northeast, Republicans lost every major state and Federal race. New England hasn’t had a Republican Congressman since 2008. California, which gave the country Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, is now run by a Democratic supermajority.
Christian Right donor and activist Richard Viguerie claims that “Tea Partiers will take over the Republican party in the next four years.” That would be great news for Democrats.
A hardline base strategy might allow Republicans to hold their own in low-turnout elections. Over time, though, the fundamental unpopularity of far right politics will take its toll. The math is relentless, but the Tea Party is too pure to be swayed by failure.
When a decision boils down to math vs. ideology, which choice is the modern Republican Party most likely to make?
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