Parker: Purity test puts Republican candidates in tough spot

By Kathleen Parker, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoKathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Email: kathleenparker@washpost.com.

If you happen to be one of those who enjoy politics as a blood sport, 2014's midterms promise to be a carnival of gore. And that's just in the Republican Party.

Democrats must be giddy.

After ending 2013 with tails tucked, thanks to a series of errors, blunders, glitches and misstatements of true-ish-ness, Democrats were poised to lose control of the Senate. Instead, Tea Party Republicans seem bent on helping Democrats win. The formula is familiar by now: Republicans who aren't conservative enough, meaning they might deign to work with Democrats, are targets for primary challenges by folks who often couldn't win a staring contest, much less a statewide election.

One need think back only to Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, who is not a witch (she said so herself) and who in 2010 defeated the primary favorite, then-Rep. Mike Castle, handing the Senate seat to Democrat Chris Coons, a relatively unknown county executive.

This isn't to say Tea Party candidates can't succeed, because, obviously, they do. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah come to mind. And then there are the 20 or so House members who, applying the brakes to any tactic considered winnable, cover their ears whenever Speaker John Boehner speaks and sing, "La-la-la-la-la-la … we can't hear you!"

This year presents a rare opportunity for Republicans. It is a make-or-break moment in the crucial debate about where this country is heading and who is going to lead it. Let's just say, the fat lady is tuning up.

In the Senate, 21 Democratic and 14 Republican seats are on the ballots. Of those GOP seats, 12 are being defended by incumbents. Republicans have a better-than-good chance of grabbing seven new seats, more than enough to end the Democratic majority, including three that have been held by soon-to-retire Democrats — Montana's Max Baucus, West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, and South Dakota's Tim Johnson.

Republican efforts to secure those seats are well underway; GOP leaders have reached out to recruit and train candidates with debate, technology and media preparation. What smart Republicans are aiming for are candidates who can win both a primary and a general election, actual human beings who can appeal to a wide swath of the electorate, not just the purity-proof hard-liners on the right. Three who fit that are West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, who has served in the House since 2001; Thom Tillis, currently speaker of North Carolina's House; and Montana's Steve Daines, a congressman who bridges the gap between right and far right.

The purity plank

But recruiting and training good candidates may not be enough for a Republican Party still dogged by the purity plank.

Capito could be Exhibit A as a winning candidate undermined by her own party. First, she's from a state where President Obama isn't very popular and she has won re-election handily to serve a total of seven terms. She is a strong advocate for the coal industry and should have no trouble securing her party's nomination. She is also favored to win the general election against Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

Except.

Guess who doesn't like Capito?

The conservative Club for Growth and the Republican Liberty Caucus, which calls itself the "conscience of the Republican Party." Last August, a "Too Liberal for West Virginia" campaign was launched against Capito because, among other things, she is pro-choice and voted to raise the debt ceiling. So the RLC supports Republican Pat McGeehan, who served in the state House of Delegates from 2008 to 2010 but has lost two state Senate election bids.

Despite having tailwinds at their back, Republicans stand to lose to proud purists while Democrats, feet up, admire the shine on their shoes. To put it kindly, pride in losing does little to contradict Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's observation that the GOP needs to "stop being the stupid party."

Wonder what the fat lady will sing?