Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Party Strikes Back

Though the focus of this blog is ostensibly on Presidential politics I can't help but comment on what's been brewing in the Republican party over the past few days.  Steven Law (and presumably Karl Rove) made something of a splash this weekend when he made it clear that American Crossroads and the Conservative Victory Project would be putting financial force to the "Buckley Rule."  The rule dates back to a 1967 interview with William F. Buckley where he threw down with Richard Nixon over Barry Goldwater for the purely pragmatic reason of Nixon's electability.  The Tea Party, in it's various incarnations, have clearly abandoned that advice in recent years with predictable consequences.  My point here is not to debate the propriety of Rove's actions, but place those actions within the framework of current political science.  In a word, it is predictable.  And it just so happens, my own backyard is ground zero.

Two of the many reasons I really dig this book is that Cohen and company broaden our understanding of what a political party is and that they are part of a growing group of researchers who are showing that parties are indeed viable organizations that can still play a defining role in choosing a presidential nominee.  While Cohen et al confine themselves to presidential nominations, there's no reason why we can't apply their basic framework to certain Congressional races.  Though it almost goes without saying, your average nomination fight for a US House or Senate seat is a snorer.  However, open seats are an entirely different animal.  Iowa is by every account a politically competitive state, with evenly divided House and Senate delegations and a habit of vacillating in Presidential elections.  Surprisingly enough, we're also rather representative of the nation at large on a wide variety factors (race excluded).  All this points to a competitive (and by that I mean fun) 2014 Senatorial election, now that Senator Tom Harkin has announced his retirement.  As Harkin called it quits with nearly the entire election cycle in front of us (thanks for that!), we've essentially kicked off our own little version of the invisible primary in which both parties will begin triangulating on candidates.  Within hours of Sen. Harkin's announcement Iowa's chattering class was abuzz with speculation on who'd take up the race.  And of course, we get some polling results to boot a few days later.  Surely every experienced politico that has either won a statewide constituency or has statewide name recognition immediately began running scenarios through their minds on a possible shot at this seat.

One such candidate is Rep. Steve King whose fourth district stretches from his home turf (and mine) in northwest Iowa to the central part of the state.  It's a new district created in the last apportionment.  King did an admirable job in adapting to the new ground in 2012; no easy task as there was a LOT of it.  The underlying partisan structure was quite different from his old district with a far greater proportion of Democrats brought in, albeit with slight Republican advantage.  Simply put, he had a real race on his hands, and he made a number of deft strategic maneuvers to deal with the new realities.  Though he won by over 8 points, the results probably understate his perceived vulnerability.  With a dw-nominate first dimension score of .752, it's safe to conclude he's about as conservative as they come.  King is also no stranger to controversy seen here expanding on Todd Akin's rape comments, which brought several WTF reactions nationwide, but were taken in stride back here in the district.  Truth be told, that's King's shtick, and he relishes the spotlight.

Enter Karl Rove.  Call Rove's group what you will (establishment, moderate, sell out, etc), it should come as no surprise that a number of voices will attempt to name (or pull) candidates into closer proximity to the median Republican voter than a more ideologically extreme candidate like King.  It's just that all the attention in the last two cycles has been paid to a group pulling the GOP to the right.  King is also a factional leader; and just as factional leaders rarely get the Presidential nomination (much less make for good general election candidates), King will face the same limitations statewide should he pursue the seat.  While his brand of religious nationalism is a clear boon in the northwest of the state and may well win him the nomination in the primary, it will likely marginalize him as he attempts to build statewide support in a general election.  This is no Democratic slam dunk however, and the PPP polling should be taken with several proverbial grains of salt.  But from Rove's perspective, a King candidacy is not worth the risk.  Rove and others would like to avoid a Sharon Angle or Christine O'Donnell situation playing out in a very winnable state.  This is largely the same dynamic we see at play as the national parties attempt to coordinate on nominees in the invisible primary, only it's scaled down to an Iowa sized conversation.  The twist is that the Iowa conversation is taking part with national players trying to influence the outcome.  I say that not to go nativist on you, but to highlight the dynamics at play: intense policy demanders actively conversing with one another about a pool of nominees with a variety of interests at stake.  

So from my perspective as a political scientist with an interest in political parties I say, "Have at it!"  Not that my normative baggage is in any one camp here, but both professionally and politically I rather like dynamic political parties as they increase responsiveness and responsibility of elected officials.  What I'm really eager to see is whether or not this mini-invisible primary will be successful in winnowing the field of both Republican and Democratic candidates.  If it does, we can surely say that the party has struck back.