The primary process exists in American politics as a mechanism in which members of a party can hold its incumbents accountable, as well as allow voters to determine the candidate they feel best fits their views, goals and mood in a general election. Both parties support this process rhetorically, cheering on a good debate and then demanding unity behind the winner at the end - which has traditionally been either an incumbent or a favorite of the party establishment.
Clearly, though, that public show of support for primaries hides a scorn for the actual idea of voters selecting a candidate for themselves, a scorn exposed by the Tea Party in this cycle. One reason for the growth of Tea Party activism is precisely the kind of disconnected, elitist and condescending attitude toward voters in the Republican Party that results in the selection of candidates like Mike Castle in Delaware. In a midterm cycle where both liberals and establishment figures have as much attraction as big-government proposals like cap-and-trade, the national Republican establishment prompted the liberal Mr. Castle to abandon his safe House seat and run for the open Senate seat left vacant by Joe Biden’s election as vice president. Not only did they hand-select Mr. Castle, whose support of cap-and-trade and the DISCLOSE Act made him particularly suspect, the party then attacked a Republican who dared to challenge him for the seat.
The national GOP ran this playbook earlier in the cycle, too. In Florida, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) immediately endorsed Charlie Crist for the Senate nomination, even though the speaker of the Florida House, Marco Rubio, had already announced his intention to run for the spot. Mr. Crist tried tying himself to President Obama in 2009, traveling with him throughout the state to promote the stimulus package that utterly failed to prevent the loss of millions of jobs. The establishment tried to pressure Mr. Rubio to quit, and then watched as he not only clobbered Mr. Crist on the campaign trail, but also as their favored establishment candidate bailed out of the party and criticized the GOP.
Voters across the country have sent a clear message of real change, and the party establishment’s embrace of Mr. Castle and Mr. Crist showed that the leadership simply refused to listen. Even that problem should have been solved by the primaries. After all, as the Republican Party has demanded so often of its conservative membership when their favored candidates lose, the need to rally behind the nominee should trump all other concerns. Surely they would adhere to their own process when the voters choose other candidates, right?
Wrong. Mr. Castle refused to endorse the winner and, initially, the NRSC leaked that it wouldn’t support winner Christine O’Donnell, either. That decision was wisely reversed by the NRSC chairman, Sen. John Cornyn, the next morning. Mr. Crist, who had pledged to remain in the Republican Party in March, defected a month later after watching his poll numbers plummet, before voters even had the chance to make a decision. Lisa Murkowski lost a primary challenge for her Senate seat in Alaska and may announce this week that she will run a write-in campaign instead, despite the fact that Republican voters rejected her earlier. Robert F. Bennett contemplated the same idea in Utah before finally acquiescing to the reality that he had lost the confidence of his constituents after three terms in the Senate.
The center-right media establishment threw a temper tantrum in the first few hours of the O’Donnell victory, too. Karl Rove, who has worked hard for the Republican Party for a long time and earned the admiration of many of us, repeatedly appeared on television to denounce Miss O’Donnell after she won, and he was not alone in that effort. Even those who had doubts about Miss O’Donnell’s stature and readiness for a high-profile race had to wonder how exactly it helped to have establishment GOP figures providing Democrats with sound bites for the Delaware campaign.
Perhaps they wanted to protect their reputations by issuing prophecies of doom and rejecting the GOP nominee, just in case Democrats eventually win Delaware. The result, though, was to alienate even further the grass-roots activists that have provided Republicans with the energy in these midterms to be in position to retake control of at least the House. In one 12-hour period, they substantiated the Tea Party distrust of the Republican establishment by revealing their true thoughts about the primary process and the value of voter engagement.
If the Republican Party establishment wants to harness the energy of the Tea Party movement, then they need to show it respect, at the very least by showing the same post-primary unity that they have long demanded from conservative activists when the establishment candidate prevailed in past cycles. Given that the Tea Party owes its existence to the refusal of the Democrat-controlled Congress to listen to the citizens on matters of spending, taxation and government growth, the GOP establishment’s refusal to listen to its own voters in primary elections puts them in great peril of being replaced or bypassed by the Tea Party movement entirely.
If the Republican Party wants to survive, let alone succeed, it has to stop acting like sore losers and start acting like a party that wants to win elections on principle and not just strategic posturing.
Edward Morrissey blogs at HotAir.com.