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Why the right's reaction to Shelley Moore Capito matters

In 2010, Republican primary voters ignored the GOP establishment's wishes and several U.S. Senate races.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.)
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.)

In 2010, Republican primary voters ignored the GOP establishment's wishes and several U.S. Senate races. The result was several winnable contests for Republicans -- including Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado -- in which Democrats prevailed. In 2012, it happened again in states like Missouri and Indiana.

Looking ahead, GOP leaders are desperate to prevent similar fiascoes, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee is eyeing a more prominent role in party primaries to prevent unelectable candidates from winning the party's nomination.

There is, however, a big problem -- far-right activists don't care what the establishment wants, don't like the candidates the NRSC supports, and don't see the problem with the status quo. This is likely to get ugly, and we're already watching the first proxy fight unfold.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's (R-W.Va.) candidacy for a West Virginia Senate seat is already signaling that Republicans could face the same intra-party split that plagued them in primaries over the past two cycles.On day one of her candidacy, Capito received criticism from two conservative groups known for mounting primary challenges against establishment-backed Republicans: the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group founded by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).Chris Chocola, president of the Club, slammed her as an "establishment candidate," and Senate Conservatives Fund executive director Matt Hoskins said the group wouldn't endorse her.

For the Republican establishment, Capito's announcement was fantastic news -- she's easily the most popular Republican in West Virginia and her campaign kickoff might pressure incumbent Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) to retire. With Capito on the ballot in this once-blue-now-red state, the GOP sees this race a big step towards retaking the Senate majority.

But in keeping with the recent pattern, the party's right-wing base isn't satisfied.

Not even three weeks since the election, Capito's challenge to Democrat Sen. Jay Rockefeller is already shaping up as test case of whether Republicans can overcome deep fissures within the party and produce palatable general-election candidates who aren't fatally wounded by bruising primary battles."We never have been able to guarantee the most electable candidate can win a primary," acknowledged veteran GOP power broker Charlie Black. "There was all that talk after 2010 when we kicked three seats away and nothing changed."

Indeed, it's arguably getting worse. Capito is a godsend for the Republican Party, but she's pro-choice, voted for S-CHIP, and has voted to extend unemployment benefits, so the far-right is prepared to veto her candidacy, despite her otherwise-conservative credentials and strong poll numbers.

Ideological purity comes at a high price.