In the six states holding primary elections today, the GOP has already paved our general election path, forcing candidates who wanted to run as moderates down the rabbit hole of the radical Tea Party right.
What we've learned in this race for the base is that Meg Whitman really likes a border fence and insider stock deals at Goldman Sachs, that Terry Branstad needs Sarah Palin to burnish his conservative cred, and that Brian Sandoval is willing to alienate Latinos in his effort to appeal to conservatives and un-glue himself from the largest tax increase in Nevada history.
The truth is, the GOP candidates on the ballot today all should have had cakewalks to their nominations. Instead, the "Tea Party effect" has forced the leading GOP candidates to spend countless millions to fend off primary opponents, pushed them to embrace failed Republican policies and -- maybe most importantly -- has led them to lurch to the far right in states where moderation is key to winning independents.
In the general elections, after tripping all over themselves to appeal to the most energized force in GOP politics -- the Tea Party -- all these candidates will have to walk a delicate electoral tightrope that won't alienate the radical right while also appealing to moderates and Independents.
We believe they'll fall off.
The winning GOP candidates are in a lose-lose position because if they try to turn away from their primary positions and run back the center, the Republican Party's most energized voters will not support them. On the other hand, if they continue to embrace the radical positions and policies they took in their primary races, they'll alienate the very moderate voters they need to win in November.
Here is a state-by-state breakdown of why the Republicans winning today are already losers:
From Meg Whitman's first ads, it was clear that she wanted to run a marketing campaign to sell voters on the idea of Meg the Businesswoman. But in the course of her primary, the billionaire ended up spending $80 million to tell voters that she's really a hardcore conservative, especially on immigration.
Whitman has more than tripled her opponent's spending, with the bulk of her resources in the last month describing why she meets the Tea Party purity test on issues like immigration. Whitman used former Gov. Pete Wilson -- whose name is a four-letter word to most Latinos -- as a surrogate in radio ads. Whitman even posed along the border fence in her ads -- though she told a reporter otherwise.
In the past two months, another general election narrative has also been laid down against the wealthy Whitman, who has to play on defense about her sweetheart insider deals with Goldman Sachs. While the Republican electorate is more forgiving of her Wall Street ties, California's general electorate will have no patience with Whitman's shameless relationship with Wall Street bankers.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Jerry Brown has spent $400,000 and is leading both Whitman and Poizner in head-to-head matchups.
Former Governor Terry Branstad's path to the nomination should have been a breeze, with his opposition coming from a social conservative who is most known for running statewide and losing. Instead, Branstad was forced to enlist Sarah Palin, the darling of the Tea Party movement, in defense of his conservative bona fides. He's spent more than $1 million going on the air to give himself the "real conservative" label.
Conservatives have been skeptical of Branstad throughout the race, to put it kindly. Branstad's tenure was marked by enormous tax increases -- particularly two sales tax hikes and one gas tax increase -- and the former governor doubled the state budget in his time in office.
The eventual Republican nominee in moderate Maine will have his work cut out for him. The state's Republican activists forced the candidates to take a rightward lurch when they voted overwhelmingly last month to adopt a Tea Party platform at the state Republican convention.
As Mike Tipping at Maine Politics describes the platform: "The official platform for the Republican Party of Maine is now a mix of right-wing fringe policies, libertarian buzzwords and outright conspiracy theories." Republicans' platform praises the Tea Party movement, calls global warming a "myth," and demands the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education.
Seven Republicans are now vying for the party's nod, but whoever emerges Tuesday will have to answer to voters whether they believe the Tea Party got it right.
Brian Sandoval is taking on the most unpopular and scandal-plagued incumbent governor of this cycle. Jim Gibbons is so toxic that renowned columnist Jon Ralston long ago labeled him a "zero." Gibbons is so unpalatable that the Republican Governors Association supported Sandoval over an incumbent member of their organization.
Still, Sandoval had to answer tough questions for his base about his responsibility for the largest tax hike in Nevada history. The Tea Party crowd became so furious with his flip-flops on taxes and immigration that Sandoval had no choice but to anger the state's Hispanic voters with his support for Arizona's controversial immigration law. Sandoval, who also flip-flopped on whether illegal immigrants should have drivers licenses, recently lost the endorsement of the influential group Hispanics in Politics, raising the question of whether Nevada's large Hispanic population will support him in the general.
And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, risking favor among Hispanic voters is particularly dangerous in Nevada, where they will have a significant impact on the election. The number of Hispanic voting age adults has grown 83.5 percent since 2000, making up nearly a quarter of the state's total voting age population.
The GOP primary in South Carolina has been jaw-droppingly ugly, with at least one candidate suggesting that helping low-income people is akin to feeding stray animals. And that was one of the higher points. None of the GOP candidates has emerged unscathed from the mudbath. Voters are tired of the politics-as-usual tactics that pass for campaigning, especially in South Carolina.
In contrast, the Democratic contest has been a fight about ideas, with the candidates holding thoughtful debates about the future of the state. While South Carolina is a very red state, the bitter and ugly GOP primary has only increased Democrats' prospects in Columbia.
Scott Heidepriem remains one of the most promising candidates in a red state of this election cycle. Heidepriem chose a Republican as his running mate, demonstrating a commitment to working from the center in a state where pragmatic problem-solving remains the most valuable political currency.
Republicans in the state are split, with moderate voters supporting Dave Knudson and the hardcore conservatives lining up behind Dennis Daugaard. If Daugaard wins the primary, Heidepriem -- a former Republican and fiscal conservative himself -- will have a good shot at picking up Knudson's supporters.
What to look for after Tuesday
The most energized segment of the Republican base is the most vocal and radical. In return for their support, they have exacted a heavy price on Republicans.
That will only continue. In states like Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin, expect the Tea Party phenomenon will dog candidates who would rather run general election campaigns.
And the narrative they've laid out is the one that will haunt all of today's winners until Nov. 2.
Follow Nathan Daschle on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@nathandaschle