The first few GOP primary competitions have been at once riveting, entertaining and revolting. But what they have not been is decisive, prompting the usual hand-wringing among Republican Party elites who grumble that a “long, drawn out nomination contest” will cause irreparable harm to the eventual GOP nominee. We disagree, and believe that the GOP is better served by a lively and extended soul-searching debate than they are a perfunctory coronation.
For starters, just four states have cast votes, and more than 90% of prospective delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa later this year have yet to be chosen. For GOP establishment types to be lamenting the length of the primary season just one month into the state by state playoff is something that leaves many rank and file Republicans in the other 46 states scratching their heads.
A prolonged and contested primary is unnecessary and counterproductive, we are told, because some of the competitors are unelectable. But is that really true? We’ve seen three different winners in the first four primaries this year – one of them a dramatic, come from behind primary victory by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in South Carolina despite a large deficit in the polls, salacious election-eve allegations by a jilted ex-wife and a better funded, better organized rival in former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Do Speaker Gingrich, Governor Romney (and for that matter Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul) carry baggage into the general election should they ultimately emerge as the GOP nominee? Undoubtedly. But so too does President Barack Obama, who will still have to defend an abysmal economy, an unprecedented and rapidly expanding public debt, runaway entitlement growth and some of the most unpopular and expensive domestic policies in recent memory. Indeed, in a recent state by state poll conducted by Gallup, a majority of residents in just ten states approved of President Obama’s job performance in 2011.
That’s not to say the general election will be a walk in the park for Republicans, or that the primary season hasn’t had its low points. Gingrich’s unfair attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital in South Carolina (which many Republicans understandably viewed as a frontal attack on free market capitalism) smacked of the kind of divisive populist rhetoric more suited to a socialist demagogue than the author of the Contract With America. Romney’s supporters, evidently feeling that turnabout is fair play, shelled out a whopping $17 million in Florida on an avalanche of negative ads that subsumed the former House Speaker, who spent a paltry $3 million in the Sunshine State.
Primaries can indeed be bruising affairs – Junior Senator Michael Bennet’s defeat of Ken Buck after a savage, gender-baiting 2010 GOP primary with Jane Norton is perhaps the freshest example that comes to mind. But a number of Colorado Republicans have also benefitted from stiff primary challenges, going on to defeat formidable Democratic opponents in the fall. Bill Owens downed then-Senate President Tom Norton in a 1998 intramural before going on to beat Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler by a razor-thin margin to win the Governor’s Mansion. And more recently in 2002, Bob Beauprez knocked off Rick O’Donnell in a spirited primary before edging out former State Senate Minority Leader Mike Feeley to win the newly-drawn 7th Congressional district.
As Mitt Romney noted in his Florida victory speech, “Primary contests are not easy. They’re not supposed to be…A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us.” In fairness, the man who wins a presidential primary always views the contest more favorably than the man who loses it, but the former Massachusetts governor is right. If the GOP expects to wrest control of the White House from an incumbent, battle-hardened, rhetorical pugilist like Barack Obama, then an extended spring-training of competitive, skill-honing state primaries may be just what the doctor ordered for their nominee – whomever that may be.