Many years ago I worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee as a low-level flunky doing what takes up about 90% of their efforts: raising money. They work very hard at raising money, are very good at it and raise millions of dollars to spend on Republican senatorial campaigns. That's why they exist.
Yet it has become increasingly apparent that there is a fundamental, conceptual flaw in how they spend that money and their current strategy is not serving the best interests of the Republican party and is not providing good return on the money invested by their many loyal contributors.
The broad purpose of the NRSC is to elect Republicans to the Senate and to keep as many Republicans as possible in the Senate. We can see how well they have done in fulfilling that mandate by the fact that there are now only a bare 41 Republicans in the Senate when only a few years ago they held a strong majority. Their strategy has been to invariably opt to give the most support to the most conventional and politically connected candidates, while ignoring or even actively opposing Republican candidates who are less conformist or more radical, even when those candidates have a better chance of winning. In too many cases in recent years they have picked the wrong candidates to back and this has cost the party seats in the Senate. In this year, when a great many Senate seats are open because of retirement, when the Democrats are particularly weak and when there are more than the usual number of contested primaries, following the same failed strategy is likely to be particularly costly.
The problem is most apparent when looking at how the NRSC is throwing its weight around in some of the most important Republican primaries. The choices they are making in these primaries reflect a strategy which is based on repeating the mistakes of the past that have relied on a shrinking base of established supporters while spurning candidates who appeal to independents and younger voters who would help give the party new life and expand support.
A look at some of the prominent primary campaigns shows how this strategy is particularly ineffective in the current environment and leaves the NRSC spending money and resources on candidates who will end up losing to candidates who are not as well-funded but have more popular support.
The most striking example is the Kentucky Republican primary, in which the NRSC has chosen to throw most of their support behind the lackluster Trey Grayson, sponsoring a fundraiser and raising money for his campaign while ignoring Rand Paul who has led him in the polls by 15 points for almost six months. Grayson is using this money to run a very negative campaign and trying to smear Paul, all of which will hurt the Republican nominee in the general election. Despite this, Paul is crushing Grayson and is also favored to win the general election. And all the money and effort of the NRSC will have been wasted when it could have been used in a general election campaign where it would help defeat a Democrat rather than funding a struggle between two Republicans.
Similarly, in Florida the NRSC has chosen to throw their weight behind Governor Charlie Crist's campaign while ignoring the campaign of popular challenger Marco Rubio. As in Kentucky they are backing the wrong horse and Rubio's insurgent campaign is gaining ground on Crist. Again the NRSC will have wasted substantial amounts of money in a primary pitting one Republican against another instead of saving it for the general election in efforts to defeat the Democrats.
The same pattern is being repeated in Nevada where the NRSC anointed Sue Lowden and has helped raise money for her, ignoring a more appealing candidate in Danny Tarkanian, who has a higher overall favorability rating with the public. Lowden is more of a party insider, but has little else to recommend her, while Tarkanian has fresh ideas and comes from a business background and appeals more to independents and liberty-minded voters from the Tea Party movement. It's the same story in Indiana where they have chosen to back the bland and mediocre Dan Coats while ignoring John Hostettler who has more grassroots support and is running roughly even with him as well as polling better against the likely Democratic nominee.
The decisions made in these three races are particularly bad because these are races for seats which are open or where there is a weak Democrat incumbent and where candidates really ought to have been competing on an equal footing. Instead, the NRSC essentially picked one candidate out of the field of hopefuls and attempted to use their influence to give them a kind of artificial incumbent status, making poor choices and wasting a great deal of money in the process. Not only did they spend money fruitlessly but they also caused the candidates they opposed to spend more money, all of which could have been used against the Democrats in the fall.
The problem continues in races where there is a Republican incumbent. In these races they inevitably support the incumbent, no matter how unpopular he is and despite any credible challengers. The outstanding example of this is the Arizona primary where John McCain faces a number of primary opponents, including former congressman J. D. Hayworth, who has considerable support. To many Republicans McCain represents a failed direction for the party and symbolizes the mistakes which handed control of the government to the Democrats. Many in the party would like to see him replaced, but the NRSC's practice of backing any incumbent regardless of their record makes removing him more difficult. This has the effect of ossifying the party and repeating past mistakes until they finally end in victory for the opposing party.
They're also remarkably petty about their role in these elections. They operate as if candidates aren't really legitimate unless they have the NRSC stamp of approval, despite the fact that the committee's track record in picking candidates is mixed at best. This is even reflected on their website where they have a practice of leaving competitive candidates who they don't like off of their candidate listings, or listing them with broken links to their websites. In some cases they'll list their preferred candidate and a minor candidate with minimal support while ignoring the candidate who is leading in the polls despite not having their support. All very petty.
For example, on the page for the Kentucky election the link to Rand Paul's website doesn't work. The Arizona page doesn't even list any of the candidates except John McCain. The Florida page has Marco Rubio conspicuously omitted. On the Indiana page Hostettler is missing from the listing. On the Nevada page the link to Danny Tarkanian's website also doesn't work. These are cheap shots, but could influence voters who go to the NRSC for information on these races and are thus misled by the faulty information on their website.
In these elections the NRSC has cast itself in the role of kingmaker, deciding who the Republican candidate should be based on their criteria rather than trusting in the judgment of the voters. In several of these examples their choice is in direct conflict with what is clearly the popular preference or the most electable candidate. Their choices certainly seem to also represent a desire to resist change and innovation while perpetuating a culture of incumbency and the status quo.
Maybe it's time for the NRSC to consider changing strategies. Rather than spending money in primary contests and causing primary candidates they oppose to also raise and spend even more money, they should save all that money and focus on the general election, for which that money can be utilized to ensure that Democrats are defeated. That seems like a much more productive and far less divisive way for them to facilitate their resources.
The NRSC is at least somewhat aware of this criticism. They have recently begun to take the position that they will not contribute money directly to candidates in contested primaries. Yet this policy is somewhat deceptive, as they continue to jointly sponsor fundraising events and make their mail and calling lists available to favored candidates like Sue Lowden and Trey Grayson.
Rather than following this somewhat hypocritical course it would be far better for the NRSC to treat all legitimate Republican candidates equally and remain neutral in the primaries. Let the grassroots voters decide and then back nominated Republicans enthusiastically with all their resources in the general election, focusing on beating the Democrats. That would cause less strife and get more Republicans elected to the Senate than the NRSC's current high-handed, short-sighted strategy.