A series of recent developments in various Republican Senate races has once again called into question whether the party's committees are squandering a historic opportunity as they approach the 2010 elections.
In several races throughout the country, candidates who either have the explicit backing of the party apparatus or are widely considered the establishment picks find themselves either in deep electoral holes or seriously challenged on personal or policy grounds.
As a whole, the GOP still stands to make major gains when voters go to the polls in eight months. But political observers and even some Republican strategists are wondering how and why the party is in its dysfunctional state when, traditionally, its guns should be united against Democrats.
"The GOP is going through a revolutionary change at the grassroots, but the national GOP has been tone-deaf," Craig Shirley, a longtime GOP communications hand, offered as an explanation. "The conservative/Tea Party/populist movement has been liberated from having to explain and apologize for the past transgressions of the national GOP and are in no mood to be dictated to. The status quo no longer holds sway over the base of the party, rather it is they who hold sway over the national GOP."
Those frictions were in evidence this past week when candidates implicitly and explicitly backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee candidates, including a sitting senator, found themselves attacked from within the party.
The floundering prospects of Charlie Crist in the Florida Senate primary has produced a Hamlet act, in which the governor is now openly flirting with the idea of bolting the party and running as an Independent. A final decision should come later this week.
On Monday, meanwhile, the National Rifle Association sent out mailers attacking the NRSC's favored candidate in the Indiana Senate race, ex-Sen. Dan Coats, for having a less than pure record on gun rights. That was followed by a stinging post from conservative activist, blogger, commenter and officeholder Erick Erickson of RedState.com, asking why Coats wasn't filing information on his personal finances.
The storyline crested on Tuesday when a new Salt Lake Tribune poll of Republican delegates in Utah produced the jaw-dropping result that Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) stands almost no chance of getting a re-election nod in 2010.
Those were just the most recent reflections of what has been a season of discontent within the GOP. In California, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina -- who has fundraised with the NRSC and said she was encouraged by the committee to enter the race -- remains a chief target of the conservative community, with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) elevating her primary into a national referendum on the party's future. In Kentucky, meanwhile Secretary of State Trey Grayson (who enjoys the implicit backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and fundraised with the NRSC as well) has found himself in a dead heat with Tea Party favorite Rand Paul.
Republican officials and strategists dismiss talk that these anecdotes reflect a broader mismanagement of the political process by the NRSC or Republican leadership. Crist, after all, made his own bed by supporting the president's stimulus package. Coats, despite growing unease with his candidacy, stood in solid position to take over Sen. Evan Bayh's soon-to-be vacated seat. Fiorina could end up losing the primary. But the second most likely victor was not the DeMint-backed Chuck Devore (a state assemblyman), but an equally mainstream candidate: former congressman Tom Campbell. And while Bennett's troubles may be hard to spin, it is hard to envision a Democrat taking advantage of the unrest.
If anything, Republicans stood in enviable positions in all of those races, regardless of who ended up being the nominee. And while the primary processes may be cantankerous, such developments are not unique to GOP races.
"All politics is local," said Larry Farnsworth, one-time press secretary to former House Speaker Dennis Haster. "There is angst against Washington, but it's directed toward Washington Democrats which is why Republicans are in such good position to win or keep these seats in November. Local voters will decide who carries our banner forward in November."
"I think it is a fairly typical pre-primary season where the various players sort out their position," said Terry Holt, a partner in the Republican PR firm HDMK. "The party sees a lot of opportunity to grow again and to appeal to both groups who are intense and motivated about participating in the next election and independents who gave the Democrats a chance but immediately regretted it. So I look at the jockeying for position as part of a typical indicator as a season for growth among Republicans."
And yet, political historians have been caught a bit off-guard by the trend. Back in 2006, when Senate Democratic leadership surveyed the political landscape, the party largely put ideological purity tests on the back burner in hopes of stacking the deck with candidates who could help it win back the Senate. Certainly there was no equivalent level of distrust with the major party committees, as is currently seen with Republican members of Congress openly expressing frustration with the way Michael Steele has run the Republican National Committee.
Four years later, and with the GOP in a similar position to Democrats circa 2006 (having suffered two straight election losses), the main story line, however, is one of internal dissension.
"It goes against the grain of both political parties which usually is to win first, improve your standing and gain control because the opposite side of the case is that when you maintain ideological purity you don't expand your base," said Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University.
"Democratic efforts in 2006 were helped in large part by some national direction among the two campaign committees. But it seems like the direction the Republicans are moving in is a grassroots orientation... They are being led by local leaders rather than national figures. And those local leaders are angry."