Primary election season is now upon us. State after state will hold its party nomination contests over the next five months starting in May. While most nominees will be fair representatives of the respective parties, occasionally parties nominate candidates whose personal problems or extreme political stances cause them to lose eminently winnable races. California’s unique rules also pose a problem for Democrats trying to unseat some of the state’s seven GOP members of Congress holding seats carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Avoiding those self-inflicted wounds will be job No. 1 for each party over the summer.
Republicans recall with horror how flawed nominees cost their party five very winnable Senate seats in 2010 and 2012. Sometimes the issue was political extremism and maladroitness, as with the case of Nevada ultraconservative Sharron Angle, who lost to Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid in 2010. Sometimes it’s sheer wackiness, as with the case of self-described witchcraft “dabbler” Christine O’Donnell, who beat liberal Republican favorite Michael Castle in Delaware’s 2010 U.S. Senate primary only to crash and burn against Democrat Chris Coons.
In 2012 the problem was statements socially conservative nominees made about abortion during the races. Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock had defeated incumbent Richard Lugar during the primary, and still looked set to win a Senate seat until a debate on Oct. 23. His statement that pregnancy arising from rape was something “God intended to happen” was meant to explain why he opposed abortion even in the case of rape, but it took on a life of its own. Polls taken before the debate showed Mourdock ahead of or tied with his Democratic opponent, but those taken afterward showed him losing by double digits. Joe Donnelly, who is running for reelection this year, won by 6 percentage points.
So far Republican candidates in targeted Senate races appear to be normal conservatives. The one glaring exception was West Virginia’s Don Blankenship. Blankenship is a former coal mine owner who was sentenced to a year in prison for his role in a deadly mine explosion in 2010. He has also attacked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s Chinese-American father-in-law, and even recently labeled McConnell “cocaine Mitch” because of an incident involving cocaine smuggling on a ship registered to the father-in-law’s company (there’s no evidence the father-in-law, much less McConnell, was involved in that). He lost in the GOP primary on May 8, giving Republicans hope that they can defeat Democrat Joe Manchin in November.
Democratic problems in California stem from the Golden State’s unique “top two” primary system. California runs a primary in June and the top two candidates advance to general election regardless of the party they identify with. Thus, it is possible two Republicans could take the top two slots in seats Democrats are targeting, freezing them out of the general election entirely.
In California’s 48th District, 30-year Republican incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has come under fire for his pro-Russian views, and Democrats think he is vulnerable. So much so that eight Democrats filed against him, at least five of which initially raised enough money to be taken seriously. But a serious Republican challenger also emerged, former Assemblyman Scott Baugh. The prospect that Baugh and Rohrabacher could take the top two slots has already caused two of the Democrats to unofficially withdraw, although their names will still be on the ballots. But unless another Democrat drops out, it’s still possible that Democrats will divide their vote three ways while Republicans divide their votes only two ways, ensuring that a Republican will hold the seat in the general election.
Smart politicos know that the most important votes don’t always happen in November. The real campaign season is kicking off now, and what happens in the spring and summer often determines who wins in the fall.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.