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Move Right and Win? We’ll Soon See

While I agree with Nate’s explosion of some of the cliches we are hearing about yesterday’s primaries, I do think there’s an aspect of the results that could use a little more scrutiny. By nominating Rand Paul and Pat Toomey for Senate contests in states with large Democratic registration advantages, Republicans are setting up a very interesting test of the counter-intuitive but madly popular (in GOP circles) hypothesis that the Party’s shift to a more ideologically rigorous conservative posture is exactly what it needs to do to build a majority.

After all, Paul and Toomey are strongly and indelibly identified with two major forces that have been pushing the GOP in a more conservative direction: the former with the Tea Party Movement, the latter with the older but still formidable Club for Growth (which has worked in tandem with the Tea Folk in Republican primaries around the country). Both men are rock stars among conservative activists. And neither is likely to execute some sort of “move to the middle” short of impending electoral catastrophe.

With respect to Rand Paul, the candidate himself made that abundantly clear in his primary victory statement last night, as noted in this report from Kate Zernike of the New York Times:

Rand Paul made clear in his remarks that the celebration at the Bowling Green Country Club was a Tea Party party. He declared himself a proud member of the movement, credited it for his victory, and dismissed speculation that he would have to abandon it to appeal to more moderate voters in the general election….

“People are already saying now you need to weave and dodge, now you need to switch, now you need to give up your conservative message, you need to become a moderate, you need to give up the Tea Party, you need to distance yourself,” he said, to which the crowd yelled NO!

Paul went on to warn that massive budget cuts (without, of course, any tax increases) would be necessary to balance the federal budget, which he says should happen immediately. There’s every indication that he means what he says. Aside from the fact that he’s already on record favoring the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education and elimination of all “pork” (presumably including public works investments, which are very important in Kentucky), the fiscal math he’s committed to will expose him during every day of the general election campaign to the plausible argument that he favors cuts in wildly popular programs like Social Security and Medicare, and/or the kind of major defense spending cuts that no successful statewide Republican candidate in recent decades has ever supported.

By continuing in this politically perilous direction, Paul is not only keeping faith with the Tea Party Movement, but also reflecting its (and the conservative movement’s) deep conviction that the GOP, even as it wages total war on Barack Obama and his agenda, is full of dangerously moderate squishes. I noted in my preview of the Kentucky primary a PPP analysis suggesting that Paul’s lead over Trey Grayson was almost entirely attributable to the one-third of self-indentified Republicans who believe their party is “too liberal.” While Paul’s refreshingly frank radicalism played well in a closed GOP primary, it’s not clear that his low single-digit lead in the polls over Jack Conway will survive extended scrutiny of his ideology.

Meanwhile, Pat Toomey is a career conservative activist running in a state that is not nearly as conservative as Kentucky, and without the benefit of a rematch with a worn-out party-switching incumbent. His Club for Growth is responsible for putting the muscle behind Grover Norquist’s remarkably successful campaign in recent years to force virtually every Republican politician in America to eternally foreswear any kind of tax increase, but like other conservatives, he is now forced to foreswear the “deficits don’t matter” mantra of supply-side economics and demand radical reductions in deficits and debt.

While Toomey did alarm a few old allies by supporting Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination last year, any theoretical “move to the middle” will run up against his own record, not only at the Club for Growth but in Congress. And as Harry Enten of demonstrated last week in a thorough review of Toomey’s House voting record, he’s made Rick Santorum look like a RINO:

Toomey ranked more conservative than 97.9% of all United States legislators since 1995. He had a more conservative voting record than J.D Hayworth, Jim DeMint, and was about as conservative as Jesse Helms. Only Tom Coburn and Tom Tancredo scored further to the right.

Now if the “move right to win” hypothesis is correct, then the conservative radicalism of Paul and Toomey shouldn’t be a problem. Indeed, many conservatives appear to believe that the relative unpopularity of the Republican “brand” has everything to do with “RINOs” and nothing to do with conservative ideology. But for all its popularity in conservative (and in a mirror phenomenon, some progressive) activist circles, the evidence for the “move right and win” hypothesis has always been spotty at best. Yes, during the period of the Great Ideological Sorting Out of the two parties from the 1970s through the 1990s, it made abundant sense for Deep South Republicans and New England Democrats to run relatively ideological campaigns in order to attract, respectively, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans (along with independents with clearer ideological than partisan identities). And yes, more ideological campaigns do help energize strong partisans. And finally, yes, “the center” has shrunk in recent years, not just among politicians but among voters.

But no manner of “clarity” or “energy” can compensate for the potential loss of voters that could well be associated with a full-throated conservative ideological agenda that goes beyond saying “No!” to unpopular Democratic initiatives and attacks on “the status quo” and “Washington” and frankly explains the very unpopular steps necessary to balance the budget without tax increases, or what conservative economic policies, from free trade to deregulation of “the private sector” to elimination of taxes on capital, would actually mean for people of modest means. (And that’s not even mentioning conservative social policies, which are no more widely popular now than they were in 2008.) Moreover, a more stridently ideological posture by Republicans could arguably play into the hands of Democrats who are frantically trying to make the next two election cycles revolve around a “two futures” choice between two very different agendas rather than a referendum on Democratic governance.

So the Kentucky and Pennsylvania Senate campaigns will merit close watching. And if the “move right and win” strategy doesn’t work in the current environment, so incredibly favorable to Republicans, it should probably be consigned right back to the dusty shelf of cranky “hidden majority” theories from whence it emerged.