In 2010, the Tea Party was in its ascendancy, and President Obama’s approval numbers reflected the dire economic straits over which he presided. Two years earlier, Democrats had secured a filibuster-proof majority that allowed them to ram through a deeply unpopular healthcare bill without a single Republican vote. Now Republicans were poised to retake the House and make serious inroads in the Senate, and they had a chance to pick up two big prizes – Senate Majority leader Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada, and the seat in Delaware vacated by Joe Biden when he won the Vice Presidency.
In both cases, the incumbents were vulnerable, and a Republican win would have represented a major coup. The problem was that the Republicans were more interested in ideological purity than they were in nominating electable candidates. Sharron Angle was the GOP standard bearer in Nevada, and while early polls showed her leading Reid by an eleven-point margin, she proceeded to run a strident hard-right campaign that turned off general election voters, even though Reid’s approval rating was mired at 39%.
The Republican mayor of Reno, endorsed Harry Reid because he considered Angle an “ultra-right winger” and the leader of the Republicans in the Nevada State Senate followed suit. In the end, Reid won election by a 5.74%, even winning Angle’s own county.
Winning a primary isn’t the same as winning the general
In Delaware, Republicans had to choose between former Delaware Governor Mike Castle, a moderate Republican who was able to succeed in a very blue state, and Christine O’Donnell, a Tea Party darling who had gone down in flames against Biden two years before. Castle was well-liked and was a shoo-in to victory in the general, whereas O’Donnell was an erratic bomb thrower who had to run an ad in which she denied she was a witch. Once again, purity prevailed over practicality, and O’Donnell went on to lose to the Democrat by 16 points.
All this was two years before Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican who punted away a Republican victory by speculating that victims of “legitimate rape” could somehow biologically “shut down” an unwanted pregnancy. And it was seven years before Roy Moore, who is responsible for the first Democratic Alabama senator in a generation.
And all of it is prelude to Joe Arpaio, the felonious Arizona sheriff who would be behind bars if President Trump hadn’t pardoned him to appease nativist supporters who enjoy Arpaio’s toxic brand of thuggish anti-immigrant racism. Arpaio is running for the Senate. He’s deeply divisive, and he’s also 85 years old. Giving him the GOP nomination in the race to replace retiring Republican Jeff Flake would be a way to follow in the footsteps of Angle, O’Donnell, Akin, and Moore – just one more instance of Republicans snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. How many times do they have to do that before they learn from their mistakes?
(Photo of U.S. Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle speaking as supporter Jeri Taylor-Swade holds up a sign, at the Clark County Republican Party gathering in the Orleans Hotel & Casino after Angle won the GOP primary June 8, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Angle, who was endorsed by the Tea Party Express, will face U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in the general election by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)