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Ponnuru: GOP should shoot message, not messengers

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Republicans are vowing to learn from their mistakes in Senate races in 2010 and ’12. Most of them are convinced they would have 50 seats, not the 45 this election left them with, had they run better candidates. Senate Republicans say they are therefore going to get more involved in primary campaigns.

In the process, they will find that candidate selection isn’t easy to fix – and is the least of their problems.

In 2010, the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, run by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, was taken by surprise by the tea party surge in the primaries. Cornyn backed losing candidates in Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida and Pennsylvania. Two of the politicians he supported ended up leaving the Republican Party because they had so little support within it.

After those embarrassments, Cornyn and his colleagues largely stayed out of the primaries this year. Since the election, however, Republicans in Washington have jumped to the conclusion that running away from the primaries was an overreaction that allowed weak candidates to be nominated.

The two races that Republicans think they threw away this year were in Missouri and Indiana, where their nominees were sunk by remarks they made about abortion and rape. In neither case, though, is it clear how increased involvement by Washington-based Republicans would have changed things.

Party insiders knew from the start that Todd Akin, the candidate who won the nomination in Missouri, was going to be trouble – enough that the Democrats were running ads to boost him. Republicans also knew that denouncing him would help him present himself as a threat to the establishment. Akin was in a three-way primary race so tight that it was hard for those who feared him to unite behind an alternative and pressure the other candidate to get out.

In Indiana, the party establishment preferred Richard Lugar, the incumbent senator, to Richard Mourdock, who successfully challenged Lugar in the primary. Nobody, however, foresaw that Mourdock would self-destruct. Writing on Salon.com in May, Steve Kornacki contrasted Mourdock with losing tea party candidates from 2010: “Mourdock – unlike, say, Christine O’Donnell or Joe Miller – is an established statewide politician whose public behavior doesn’t easily conform to the image of a kook.”

The national publicity that Akin and Mourdock received has distorted people’s perceptions of the Senate races, creating the impression that Republican losses resulted from tea partyers’ foisting unelectably extreme nominees on the party. Akin was not, however, the consensus choice of tea partyers, who were split three ways in the primary, just as other Republicans were.

On Election Day, what’s more, other factions of the party were at least as disappointed as tea partyers were. For most of the year, Republicans expected to pick up seats in Montana and North Dakota, where wholly establishment candidates were running for Congress. They lost both races narrowly. Tommy Thompson and George Allen were not tea party favorites, and they lost races that had been considered winnable in Wisconsin and Virginia, respectively. Tea partyers and social conservatives point to those races and complain, justifiably, that they have become scapegoats for Republican defeats.

Senate Republicans insist their efforts aren’t directed against conservative activists in the party. They say they will consult with tea partyers and others to generate a consensus about future candidates. The newly elected vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee is Sen.-elect Ted Cruz of Texas, who won conservative trust during his own insurgent campaign against the party establishment earlier this year.

Maybe the new tactics will improve the Republicans’ showing in future elections. Yet it is hard to see how they would have changed the outcomes in any of the races during 2010 or ’12. And the defeat of Republican Senate candidates of every type this year suggests that choosing better candidates is not the party’s principal problem.

That’s a second way the focus on Akin and Mourdock is misleading: It makes candidate selection in general look more important than it is. Better candidates would have made a very good election night for Republicans in 2010 even better. This year, unlike 2010, Republicans lost most of the closely contested Senate races. Choosing the wrong candidates made those losses slightly worse, but didn’t cause the night to go sour in the first place.

Republicans have now lost seats in three of the past four Senate elections. The party’s message isn’t sufficiently attractive to win a majority of the votes, it appears, absent highly favorable circumstances. No change in the process of picking candidates can possibly fix that problem.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.

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