Republican Are Facing Divisive Primaries
By CARL HULSE
Published: September 26, 2009
WASHINGTON — Kelly Ayotte, the former attorney general of New Hampshire, was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, reaping the benefits of being a favored Republican Senate candidate. She collected checks at a series of fund-raisers, including a reception that drew Senate Republican leaders eager for her to join them as a colleague in 2011.
Back in New Hampshire, Ovide Lamontange, one potential Republican rival to Ms. Ayotte, was reaping the benefits of not being in Washington, hosting scores of supporters at a Manchester club and collecting canned and dry goods in a food drive.
The contrast was no accident. In New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado and other states, the push by Republicans in Washington to identify preferred Senate candidates has stirred resentment and touched off competition from those not impressed by the Washington seal of approval.
“When folks in Washington say, ‘This is our candidate, get in line,’ I think people are going to want to take a look first,” said Jim Merrill, an adviser to Mr. Lamontagne, who won the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary in 1996 in an upset before losing the general election.
Democrats have their own problems when it comes to Senate races, with potentially divisive primaries looming in Pennsylvania, Colorado and elsewhere. And the Obama administration discovered the perils of meddling in state politics when its efforts to sideline Gov. David A. Paterson of New York provoked a backlash in recent days.
But the pushback on national Republicans is striking because it comes at a time when many in the party believe the political environment is rapidly improving for them and after party strategists were initially keen on the early effort to single out Senate choices.Yet in Florida, former House Speaker Marco Rubio has refused to abandon his quest for the Republican Senate nomination despite the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s quick blessing of the candidacy of Gov. Charlie Crist. And the perception that the national party was going to meddle in the Colorado primary on behalf of Jane Norton, the former lieutenant governor, upset folks there.
In Illinois, Representative Mark Kirk, a man who party leaders wanted in the race, is seeing his conservative credentials challenged. Republican contenders in Missouri, Ohio and California who are seen as the establishment choice have also encountered turbulence.
To some, the resistance is an extension of the grass-roots distrust of the government that was on vivid display during town hall meetings this summer and at the recent conservative protest on the National Mall. Though much of the antipathy was aimed at Democrats, there is unhappiness with Republicans at the national level as well, with home-grown conservatives citing them as part of the overall problem.
Mr. Rubio, who has been embraced by leading conservatives as he takes on the more moderate governor, said it also represents a failure by leaders in Washington to recognize that the future of the party is in emphasizing the conservative themes that resonated this summer.
“During the post ’08 hangover there were some in the establishment who thought our way back was to moderate our message,” Mr. Rubio said in an interview. “The arguments that were used to justify an endorsement in a primary all look silly now.”
Senator John Cornyn, the Texan who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged that it is a “little bit of a balancing act” trying to recruit and back top-tier candidates without seeming to stifle the political process. But he said in some instances, including that of Mr. Crist in Florida, it just made sense to get behind a strong candidate early on.
“Our general rule is to let the voters in the states pick their own primary candidate but there have been exceptions to those rules,” he said. “It is the logical choice to make because we have limited resources to spend on a national basis.”
Republican strategists and independent analysts say Republicans are simply doing what they should be doing: Being pragmatic in trying to lure the best candidates in what could be a favorable environment and then focusing on building those contenders into winners in November 2010.
“They are doing their job and yet for some reason in this cycle it has ruffled feathers where it hasn’t in the past,” said Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the Cook Political Report. “By and large, it may not cause any damage.”
The real question for these outsider candidates who are emerging is whether they can capitalize on anti-insider sentiment to build credible campaigns. There are sound reasons the national party favors certain people — they have proven appeal, experience, established organizations and a record of success than can be built on. The insurgents clearly have their work cut out for them.
“It is very difficult for a candidate go from zero to 60 within a year’s time without having a previous political network to fall back on,” said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report.
Some see Republican rivalry as a good thing. Dick Wadhams, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said Republicans should take a deep breath and get comfortable with intra-party battles that could ultimately be advantageous in taking on the real foe — Democrats.
“Many Republicans hear the word primary and they dive under the table and get in the fetal position,” said Mr. Wadhams, who advised the national party to steer clear of the Colorado Senate preliminaries. “I think primaries are healthy. They make for better candidates and campaigns.”