05.21.2014 0

Republican primary theme: Beating incumbents is difficult

A version of this article was originally published on TheHill.com.

John Boehner and Mitch McConnellBy Rick Manning

Beating incumbents is difficult.

That is real lesson that can be taken from the Republican Senate primary election in Kentucky pitting Minority Leader Mitch McConnell against businessman Matt Bevins. There is a reason why incumbents who choose to run for reelection overwhelmingly get reelected.

Challenger Bevins started strong and looked like a formidable opponent, but a primary opponent typically is cut off from local political party resources due to long-held friendships and connections with the incumbent. This necessitates spending resources to create an entire grassroots network from whole cloth. Even more significantly, the incumbent has a dramatic advantage in issue knowledge, local media contacts and relationships and the rhythms of the political process. This advantage often is used to make an opponent look foolish or unprepared for the big stage. And most important, mainstream K Street Republican incumbents have the monetary advantage that allows them to frame challengers in a negative light so stark that not even their mothers would vote for them.

To win, the primary challenger needs to run a flawless race, and even then, unless the incumbent has made fatal errors, that might not be enough to win.

It is highly likely that political columnists and corporate Republican mouthpieces are crowing already about the defeats of Tea Party candidates. They will be declaring that the Tea Party is dead, and that these elections show that the base supports the current leadership team.

However, these pundits miss the critical point: Beating McConnell in a primary was always a long shot.

To get a real plumb line of where the Republican base is, you need to look at open seats in Republican-leaning states. Nebraska provides a great example. Ben Sasse winning the nomination against the establishment’s handpicked choice is a powerful testimony to the Tea Party’s continuing power.

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