As it turned out, the bat-crap-crazy faction of Republican Senate candidates proved to be a liability to the party. For the second time in a row, Republicans failed to take back the Senate--a feat which was not only presumed possible, but probable, before candidate after candidate imploded in controversial and insulting public remarks. Instead of picking up Senate seats, Republicans lost two. Not surprisingly, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is looking to make a change.
For Republicans, the problem is in the primaries, where Tea Party-backed candidates can thrash "establishment" Republicans with their mercilessly conservative bona fides. Tea Party types electrify the base and galvanize voter turnout. But when they win, as a number of them did in the last cycle, the general election proves to be another game entirely. Without the gerrymandered benefits reaped by House candidates, merciless conservatism can spook independent voters. It's also bound to produce some spectacular gaffes (see Akin, Mourdock, etc.).
Krystal Ball, co-host of msnbc's The Cycle, commented on how it may be a much bigger problem for the Republican Party outside of those gaffes:
"To Jindal’s point there about saying stupid things and offensive things...I mean, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, no question, they lost those races because of the stupid things that they said, but they are not the ones who pushed such extreme policies. The whole Republican party was pushing 1,100 anti-choice provisions in state legislatures nationwide, trying to shut down the government over defunding Planned , so they have a much bigger problem than a couple candidates saying crazy things."
The NRSC stayed out of primary races this time, refusing to endorse or spend money on favored candidates. It was still licking its wounds from 2010, when several of its chosen candidates lost primaries precisely because they were chosen by it. Tea Partiers relish taking on the establishment and winning. As Politico reports, "The committee’s most embarrassing embrace—the one most responsible for its gun-shy approach this year—was choosing a moderate, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who later left the GOP, over Rubio."
But as we saw earlier this month, a hands-off approach turned out to be just as effective as a heavy-handed one. So, the NRSC is looking to split the difference. This is why they tapped Texas Senator-elect Ted Cruz to be their new Vice Chairman of Grass Roots and Outreach.
Cruz is a conservative product like Akin and Mourdock, winning an upset runoff primary in Texas against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the first choice of influential Texas GOPers like Rick Perry. Cruz was smart enough, however, to avoid the debilitating gaffes that brought his brethren down. Frankly, Cruz is just smarter. Boasting degrees from both Princeton and Harvard Law School, he has a resume that includes clerking for Chief Justice Rehnquist and a tenure as the longest serving Solicitor General in the history of Texas.
Cruz is so decorated that RedStates's Erick Erickson saw fit to warn him shortly after his primary victory of imminent "sexual advances" by the GOP establishment. "The Republicans in Washington aim to co-opt him, to pacify him, and to make him an ally in preservation of the status quo," Erickson wrote in August. "They will use conservative editorialists, fundraisers, and others to do the dirty work."
As his new place in NRCS shows, the co-opting has already begun. But Erickson is only half right: as Tim Murphy over at Mother Jones pointed out, "Cruz's greatest asset is that he lives in both worlds." If the NRCS is looking to find candidates "based on the desires, the electability and the input of people back in the states that we’re talking about," as Chairman Jerry Moran has indicated, Cruz seems like perfect pick for the job.
But Alex Wagner of msnbc's NOW believes that Cruz is very much an instrument of the Tea Party agenda:
"I think the Ted Cruz nomination is a signal the Republican Party still thinks the Tea Party agenda is going to be very much part of the GOP moving forward. They still think they need an ambassador to those folks. And it seems like the DNA is very much part of the genetic code."
The Republican establishment would do well not to forget Cruz's own campaign platform: a staunch supporter of the Tenth Amendment and state sovereignty, he pledged to eliminate the departments of education, commerce, energy, as well as the TSA and the IRS. As Cruz told Nightline in August, "In my race, thousands and thousands of Tea Party activists made the difference in the race and it's a fundamental shift. It's getting the Republican Party back to the principles we should have been standing for in the first place."
Cruz's victory was no doubt a grassroots effort; it's clear he has the credentials to be the NRCS's Vice Chairman of Grass Roots, if there were such a job. It not quite so clear, however, just what kind of candidate the Cruz Outreach Project will find and endorse, but Republicans are sure to find out.