Crazy Enough To Win

Why Democrats shouldn’t feel overconfident about beating some of those wacky Republican nominees.

Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga.

If Democrats think that the Republican Party’s base is committing ritual seppuku by nominating Senate candidates like Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Ken Buck in Colorado, they have short memories. Four years ago, the smart set was in near-universal agreement: The Democratic base was nominating candidates who couldn’t win.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in New Hampshire. In 2006, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put its weight behind state legislator Jim Craig, seen as the best candidate to take on then-Rep. Jeb Bradley. Craig was challenged in the primary by Carol Shea-Porter, a liberal activist who won some glancing fame for being escorted from a George W. Bush rally wearing a T-shirt that read “Turn Your Back On Bush.”

Craig and the DCCC outspent Shea-Porter 10-1. She beat him by 20 points. The race, according to Washington strategists, was pretty much over. When a reporter from the Manchester Union Leader asked the DCCC whether it would help its new candidate, regional spokeswoman Jen Psaki responded by talking about the DCCC’s candidate in New Hampshire’s other House district.”I know this isn’t exactly what you asked, but we see Paul Hodes emerging as one of the top pick-up opportunities in the Northeast,” said Psaki. (She’s now a deputy communications director at the White House.)

As it happened, Shea-Porter won, spending less than $200,000 and beating Bradley by four percentage points. (In 2008, she beat him again.) Bradley saw the upset coming, but almost nobody else did. “There was a perception that I was OK after she won the primary,” said Bradley on Thursday, reached while doing work in his current job as a New Hampshire state senator. “The final tracking poll, the night before the election, showed me up by 10 points. My core campaign stayed engaged. I never worked so hard. But the next level of volunteers, activists, donors, those types of people—they assumed I was safe.”

Bradley laughed at the memory. “I like to joke that if I had a dollar for everybody who slapped me on the back and said, ‘Hey Jeb, you’re all set,’ I’d be retired now.”

Shea-Porter was one of many Democratic candidates who weren’t supposed to win their primaries in 2006. In Montana’s primary for U.S. Senate, Jon Tester blew past the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s choice. In California’s 11th district and Kentucky’s 3rd district, Jerry McNerney and John Yarmuth, respectively, defeated great-on-paper military veterans who’d been recruited by then-DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel. * The National Republican Congressional Committee mocked the Democrats’ bad luck. Then, McNerney and Yarmuth won.

Democrats were as pessimistic about some of their races four years ago as Republicans are now. In his fine, forgotten campaign book The Thumpin’, reporter Naftali Bendavid reconstructed all of those “losses” and showed that the DCCC got bearish when its crop of veteran candidates ran into trouble. This week, it was not hard to find Republicans (anonymously) trashing some of the candidates that voters had handed them.

Curiously, Republicans are doing the trashing without evidence that these candidates are actually going to lose. Let’s take the contenders dubbed by the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein as the “tea party triumvirate.” Ken Buck, who won the right to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado, currently leads the incumbent by 2.8 points. Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, the GOP establishment choice, leads Bennet by only 0.3 percentage points in a theoretical matchup. Kentucky’s Rand Paul leads Democrat Jack Conway by 2.5 points, and while Paul’s defeated rival Trey Grayson often led by more, Paul has come back from trailing Conway when he first entered the race. The only member of the triumvirate trailing in the polls is Nevada’s Sharron Angle, who’s down by two. But by the time Angle won the primary, Reid was also beating the once-front-runner, Sue Lowden.

The Angle-Lowden situation explains much of what’s happening here. The party favorites, in some races, are terrible campaigners. Kentucky’s Grayson, tipped as a national star for years, turned in a whining, fumbling debut performance, once griping about Paul’s endorsement from Sarah Palin, and once complaining that the media didn’t ask him as many easy questions as it asked Paul. Lowden imploded—with prodding from Reid’s nuclear-strength oppo team—after suggesting that a goods-for-services bartering system could replace “ObamaCare,” and getting tied in knots about what this meant. Norton made an unconvincing pilgrimage to the right, a source of great amusement to activists who remembered her 2005 support of a tax-raising ballot initiative.

But in another sense, Paul, Angle, and Buck are unrepresentative of the movement they’re co-opting: They are the best, not the norm of Tea Party candidacies. Most of the novice politicians who’ve run on Tea Party support have tumbled into lopsided primary defeats. (Angle is not a novice but lost several campaigns before hitching herself to the Tea Party Express.) The winners have built on the new, demanding, what’s-your-position-on-the-Fed base with real grass-roots campaigns and busy, hustling campaign schedules. A candidate who sees a tide and rides it might also be a good candidate.

Democrats argue that the talent that got them through primaries won’t work in general elections. Markos Moulitsas, whose Daily Kos blog and bloggers fought the good fight against 2006’s lame establishment Democrats—he co-wrote a book about it, Crashing the Gate—argues that the Tea Party has put more seats into play.

“It’s a bad climate,” said Moulitsas. “But the teabaggers are throwing Democrats a lifeline. They may still win those seats, but they’ll have to fight a lot harder to win them and suck up resources that could’ve been concentrated in places like Washington and Wisconsin. … Those seats would’ve been off the table had Republicans nominated their establishment choices.”

Maybe. But Democrats haven’t yet fully engaged. This campaign season has yet to see any truly despicable negative ads, and Republicans in 2010 may be more vulnerable to them than Democrats were in 2006. The “crazy” thing about Carol Shea-Porter was that she passionately opposed the Iraq war. Lucky for her, so did New Hampshire. The “crazy” thing about Angle, by contrast, is that she wants to privatize Social Security, and she’s trying to fight back by disingenuously pretending that she doesn’t.

Still, the success of Shea-Porter—or is it the failure of Jeb Bradley?—should give Democrats pause. “I don’t think anybody in Washington thought I could possibly lose, and I lost,” said Bradley. “For everybody who says Sharron Angle or Rand Paul can’t win, there’s a Jeb Bradley who can prove them wrong.”

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Correction, Aug. 13, 2010: This article originally misidentified the Kentucky district John Yarmuth represents. It’s the 3rd, not the 1st District. (Return to the corrected sentence.)