Ramesh Ponnuru disagrees with the idea that Republican rape theoreticians Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were a major cause on the Republican Party’s disastrous Senate outcome in which they lost 25 out of 33 Senate races. Ponnuru rightly points out that Republicans lots of different races that should have been competitive with lots of different candidates. I would also add that many of the defeated Republican Senate candidates had established statewide brands as either establishment Republicans (Tommy Thomson, George Allen) or moderates (Linda Lingle, Scott Brown.) Like Ponnuru said, every kind of Republican lost Senate races this year. Ponnuru argues that while stronger Republican candidates would have won the Indiana and Missouri races, they would still have lost more than two thirds of the Senate seats. The Republican problem wasn’t with the tea party faction, or the establishment faction, or the moderate faction or any faction. The problem was that all the Republicans lacked a strong message that resonated with the public.
Charlie Cook offers a subtle variation on the idea that the Republican problem is too many extremist/Tea Party/social conservative/scary lunatics (I’m kidding obviously.) Cook argues that Akin and Mourdock didn’t just lose their own races. They lost races for other people too. Cook writes:
For every Akin and Mourdock, there is a Scott Brown, a Linda Lingle, or a Heather Wilson who cannot win in tough places, at least in presidential years, because of the face of the Republican Party, a threatening brand to many moderate and swing voters.
This frame is pretty easy to mock. When a Tea Party/social conservative candidate loses it is the fault of the right-wing. When a pro-choice, moderate, I-love-bipartisanship-more-than-life-itself guy like Scott Brown loses a race it is the fault of…some other Republican Senate candidate running a races hundreds and maybe even thousands of miles away. No matter what happens, we will always know who to blame.
But all mocking aside, I think there is a little truth to what Cook is saying. Not a lot of truth mind you. Scott Brown didn’t lose his race by 8% because of Todd Akin. Tommy Thompson didn’t lose his race in Wisconsin by 5% because of Akin. It is absurd to blame Linda Lingle losing her race by 25% on Todd Akin. And yet there is something to what Cook has to say. There probably was a nonzero number of voters whose idea of what Republicans believe was strongly informed by Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment. I doubt this cost Republicans any Senate seats outside of Missouri, but Republicans need help among lots of different kinds of voters.
Pretty much all reasonable observers can agree that Republicans should run better Senate candidates, but better candidates won’t solve the problem. If Republican candidates go down from Hawaii to Virginia, to Wisconsin, to Massachusetts, to Montana whenever any Republican in America says anything stupid, the problem isn’t primarily candidate selection and it isn’t that the Republicans lack a mind control ray to shut up every single candidate who might pop off. The problem is that the Republicans lack a compelling message and/or are unable to communicate with wide swaths of the population. To the extent a Republican candidate finds the voters associating them with Todd Akin, it is because the candidate is not being associated with high salience issues of their own choosing. Since the Republicans aren’t painting a picture of who they are, the liberal-leaning media is painting the picture for Republicans.
In 2010 the Democrats desperately tried and mostly failed to tie Scott Brown to the enormously unpopular George W. Bush. There were reasons for this failure. Brown had a set of issues that played well with the special election voting population of 2010. Brown was against Obamacare and civilian trials for terrorist suspects. For several reasons, those issues were less salient in 2012 and Brown didn’t find any new compelling issues to campaign on. That’s okay, because neither did any other Republican. The 2012 electorate probably also included a lot more voters who had no personal or family history of voting Republican and who had never been exposed to a right-of-center argument at length. To the extent that anyone in this population heard an argument from Brown, it was 30 second ads about how he was such a nice, bipartisan guy. There was also no explanation for how his nice bipartisanship would be of any benefit to anybody. To the extent that many of these voters heard anything about Republicans, it was from entertainment or social media highlighting whatever stupid thing said by this or that Republican.
Don’t get me wrong. Brown and Lingle were going to lose in 2012 no matter what, but we need to get the proportions of the Republican problem right. The lack of a compelling middle-class and working class agenda, and the failure to adjust to changing media consumption patterns is a much bigger problem for Republicans than the political sins of Todd Akin. Solving those problems of agenda-building and messaging would be more complicated, but also more possible than trying to make sure that no Republican ever again says anything stupid.